Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015 | 1:50 a.m.
The celebration was nine months in the making for the Desert Pines High football team.
The Jaguars finally beat nemesis Moapa Valley and players clearly were enjoying themselves Friday moments after time expired in a 34-20 road victory.
The win was revenge for last season’s state championship game, when Desert Pines squandered a three touchdown advantage in the final quarter and lost in overtime. So, the Desert Pines players, especially those returners who admit they had a hard time recovering from the tough loss, started jumping up and down in excitement. They were loud and proud.
Jaguars coach Tico Rodriguez, after giving them a few seconds to bask in their glory, reached under his shirt and pulled out his whistle. He quickly blew it and instructed players to calm down.
He proceeded to deliver a message that some didn’t expect. Yes, it was a good win. And, yes he commended players for their effort. But, at the same time, he pointed out multiple mistakes they made, including unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and turnovers, and warned how a repeat performance could lead to the team’s demise.
Desert Pines is the clear-cut favorite to win the state championship, but if they perform like they did Friday, they’d be prime targets to be upset, he firmly told them.
“It was ugly. We didn’t play well,” Rodriguez said. “We let the emotions of the game get to us.”
Desert Pines took advantage of eight Moapa Valley turnovers, including an interception by Jordan Diggs late in the fourth quarter in Desert Pines territory with the Jaguars clinging to a 26-20 lead.
A few plays later, quarterback Marckell Grayson rushed 46 yards for a touchdown, bursting free from tackles near the goal line to extend the lead to double digits with 2:12 remaining.
But Desert Pines learned the hard way last year — no lead is safe.
Vasa Hansell sealed the victory with an interception with about 40 seconds remaining, returning the ball into Moapa Valley territory to start the celebration. While Desert Pines players have been repeatedly schooled not to dwell on the past, Hansell and others surely knew then they had finally beat Moapa Valley.
Moapa Valley hadn’t lost a league game since 2007. It hadn’t lost at home since 2011. It had never lost to Desert Pines.
“Four years I have waited to beat this team, for this to happen — and for me to end it, is an honor,” Hansell said.
The Desert Pines defense deserves most of the credit for the win. In the first half, Jalen Graves recovered a fumble and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and Desert Pines advantage. It gave Desert Pines a brief 20-14 lead.
“We just played hard. Coach Rod told us we needed heart for this game and we needed revenge,” Graves said. “We just came out and did what we do.”
But 12 seconds later, Moapa Valley’s RJ Hubert raced 54 yards for a touchdown to even the score. Hubert, despite often being double covered, scored all the Moapa Valley points. He scored on a 52-yard halfback pass from Jay Mortensen and returned a kickoff 83 yards for another touchdown. Desert Pines refused to kick Hubert the ball, so teammates would pitch it back to him — anything to get the best player on the field the ball — to trick Desert Pines defenders.
“Hubert is just a special player,” Rodriguez said. “The kid’s great. Even with our game plan, he (dominated).”
Grayson connected with Randal Grimes for a 15-yard touchdown minutes before halftime to give Desert Pines the lead for good. After they combined to score 39 points in the second quarter, there were just eight points in the second half. Miscues by both teams were to blame.
“I thought we outplayed them. The entire game we dictated everything,” Moapa Valley coach Brent Lewis said. “If we don’t give them eight gifts, they don’t beat us.”
Desert Pines is in the driver’s seat to win the Sunrise League. Moapa Valley, as witnessed tonight, isn’t far behind. The teams will likely meet again with the state championship on the line, but that’s not until late November. There’s a lot of football left.
“We are focused on finishing. If we get into the position to finish, let’s finish. Let’s live in the moment and let’s capitalize,” Rodriguez said. “Last year, I felt like we didn’t capitalize when we had the opportunity. This year, we were more focused.”
Isaiah Morris rushed for nearly 150 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, Grayson had a pair of rushing touchdowns and a 2-point conversion, and Artise McCoy, Curtis Henderson and Dominique Washington had interceptions for Desert Pines.