SCOTTSDALE - William Haskell didn't have time to pinch himself, but it was hard to believe he was not in the middle of a dream.
His team was down 20 late in the third quarter on the road, and the quarterback would need to lead four touchdown drives in the final 16 minutes to pull off a comeback win for the ages. Only this was real.
Ironwood - and its star quarterback - did it. The Eagles won their first football playoff game in 15 years Friday night.
"We played an almost perfect second half," Haskell said. "I got a headache and for a little bit I didn't know if it was a dream. The overall energy of the whole team was amazing."
Indeed, if this dream sequence is pitched as a sports movie, it's probably tossed because it's too improbable. #3 seed Scottsdale Desert Mountain kicked a field goal to build its lead to 27-7 with 4:22 left in the third quarter of the 5A football quarterfinal Nov. 27.
The #6 seed Ironwood had not even ran a play in the second half. Yet in the final 15 minutes of game time, Haskell would catch a touchdown pass, run for two more scores and throw the 40-yard game winning strike to senior tailback Elijah Sanders with 55 seconds left.
An Eagles defense that had been run over all night held the Wolves to two field goals in the second half. They stopped the home team cold with 90 seconds left to force a punt then did it again to preverse an improbable 35-30 Ironwood (6-2) win.
"The one difference between this year and last is that Will didn't have another shot. He wanted to try and win it by himself at first. I've gotta attribute the comeback to Will's ability to diagnose what they were doing with their blitzes and coverages and give me and the offensive staff feedback at halftime to direct where we needed to change things up," Ironwood coach Christioher Rizzo said. "I'm blessed to be on this campus and I'm so happy to be where I'm at."
Haskell and Rizzo had plenty of help getting out of the hole caused by the first two quarters - and really, the last two weeks. Ironwood had a COVID case close to the program and had to shut down early last week and cancel their season finale against Millennium.
The Eagles only knew they would be cleared to play early on Thanksgiving morning. And they had their first practice in nearly two weeks the morning of the game, Haskell said.
But, as Rizzo, was quick to point out, none of that has anything to do with the excellent preparation coach Conrad Hamilton and his staff put in this week. Their line and junior tailback Zack Kilburg dominated the first half - rolling up 126 yards - and Hamilton's blitz packages kept Haskell off balance.
"Their blitzes were something we hadn't seen before. They're a really good squad. The way they're coached and use their hands on defense - they're probaby the smoothest defense we played along with Desert Edge," Haskell said.
Desert Mountain (4-3) may not have a playmaker to match the Eagles fleet. But its team concept built a 24-7 lead at the break. Kilburg had two touchdowns and senior Caleb Taylor picked off Haskell to set up a late field goal.
"Hats off to Coach Hamilton and they're whole program. They were so well-prepared tonight," Rizzo said. "It's actually kinda scary because instead of one of two guys they use all 11 pieces on the chess board - and that's hard to stop."
Kilburg ran four times for 21 yards and senior quarterback Aiden Cerullo added three carries for 17 before the Eagles got a third down stop and forced a 20-yard field goal by sophomore Luke Purinton.
Ironwood could not run a full practice most of the week but could get some drills in with a few position groups. Those drills produced the trick play that sparked the comeback.
Senior receiver Nehemiah Lindo took a short toss from Haskell and spun out of a tackle broke a second and cut across the field for a 53-yard gain and first and goal at the 6. But the Desert Mountain rush forced Haskell into his second intentional grounding of the night and the Eagles were back at the 24.
Congrats 2 @HaskellWilliam4 & the entire @IronwoodFball team for an epic 2nd half comeback to win their 1st playoff game since 2005 (None of which I was lucky enough to see) In the last 15 min Haskell caught a TD from @JamesMcelhenny3 ran for 2 more & threw 1 to @ElijahSanders17 pic.twitter.com/BDocKrrhFx— Brady (@Focuzed7) November 28, 2020
Senior James McElhenny was supposed to be Tolleson's quarterback this year, until the entire district canceled football in late October. He transfered to Ironwood and debuted in the playoffs.
McElhenny took a double reverse handoff, stopped and lofted a perfect 24-yard touchdown toss to the uncovered Haskell. Ironwood narrowed the gap to 27-14 with 2:26 left in the third quarter.
"That play we put in Tuesday morning. There's a trust value with James. Practice makes perfect," Haskell said. "James is a hell of an athlete. I've known James for years from the Elev8QBacademy and played with him there."
The Eagles' defense picked up a quick three and out and their offense took over at the 33.
On the final play of the third quarter, Haskell hit senior tight end/linebacker Mekhi Mannino-Faison for 17 to convert a fourth and three. To start the fourth quarter, Haskell scrambled 28 yards for the touchdown and it was 27-21.
"Their linebackers loved to blitz. They were keying on our run. So as we got deeper into the game we said, 'OK let's start passing it more.' We had to pass it efficiently to make them respect the run game, then we could run it down their throat," Mannino-Faison said.
Desert Mountain immediately went on another punishing ground-bound drive. Kilburg picked up 32 yards on five straight carries - he would finish with 214 yards and two touchdowns on 27 totes.
The Wolves converted a third down on Cerullo's plunge, but Ironwood stuffed Kilburg on second and third and goal, forcing a 23-yard Purinton field goal with 4:34 left.
"We don't have a lot of size on defense and teams run right at us. But if we can tackle and keep people in front of us, we can get enough stops to win," Rizzo said.
A few stops is enough when you have a quarterback that can avoid the rush, change direction and launch a 55-yard strike downfield, as Haskell did on the next series to Lindo.
Two plays later, Haskell avoided the rush and dashed 11-yards for a touchdown. A two-point conversion brought Ironwood within 30-29 with 3:07 remaining.
"It's crazy once Will is on a run like that. The first half I was not mentally locked in like I was supposed to be. The second half, I knew my team was going to come together," Lindo said. "We came out here with heart. Coach Rizzo has been trying to elevate this program to another level and this game shows he's done that. We proved we're a team that's not going to die off. We're going for the gold."
Desert Mountain recovered the ensuing onside kick but committed delay of game and false start penalties before second down saved time and set up an Ironwood stop. A short punt set up the visitors at their own 46 with 1:09 on the clock.
On the third play Sanders split out wide beat his man on a fly pattern and Haskell dropped a perfect strike into his arms 30 yards in the air. Sanders caught it, ran, bobbled the ball forward and regained possession in the end zone for the go-ahead score.
"Will is just phenomenal. They kinda triggered on me in the first half. So we went to Nehemiah and Bubb (Mannino-Faison) more to open things up," Sanders said. "To go to the playoffs back-to-back years was amazing. We had a couple tough years early. WInning that game tonight was all heart."
The Wolves got a quick first down on its last drive, but the Eagles forced two straight incompletions to force fourth down. Senior cornerback Sebastian Fiery-Hardimon blitzed and got his team's only sack of the night to seal the upset.
Fiery-Hardimon, Mannino-Faison and Samuel and Manny Tinoco joined Haskell in transferring from Deer Valley to Ironwood following an off-campus altercation with other Deer Valley students in the summer of 2018.
But for Haskell, it was a homecoming. He grew up down the street and watched Ironwood games as his father, William, was on the Eagles' staff. Mannino-Faison was in the Ironwood area too.
Now they get one more home game as #6 Ironwood (6-2) hosts #7 Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (5-2) in a 5A semifinal at 7 p.m. Dec. 4.
"We gave everything we got. It's our senior year and we want to change the culture. We hadn't been in back-to-back playoffs in a long time (since 2007). And winning this game and going to the semifinals, that's something Ironwood hasn't done in a while. I feel like we can take it all the way," Mannino-Faison said.
Ironwood senior running back Elijah Sanders tries to get outside while Desert Mountain senior linebacker Eli Mackowski tries to make a diving stop and senior linebacker Caleb Taylor (#1) closes in during the 5A football playoff quarterfinal at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale Nov. 27. [Courtesy Marie Taylor/For West Valley Preps]