GILBERT - The Northwest Christian Crusaders got the kind of game they wanted, a defensive slugfest, against the defending-champion Mesquite Wildcats in the 4A quarterfinals on Friday.
But the offense could not put up enough points, and the Crusaders’ 2020 campaign came to a close with a 27-10 loss.
Though disappointed in the moment that the season – Northwest Christian’s first in 4A – had ended, coach David Inness said he was impressed with his team’s effort.
“We’ve set the bar really high, and these guys don’t expect anything, but they know what they have to do to play up to the level we want, regardless of what class we are in,” Inness said.
It seemed the defensive unit of the sixth-seeded Crusaders were expecting a big game from was in for a long night at first. On Mesquite’s first play from scrimmage, star senior quarterback Ty Thompson hit senior Lavontae Trotter for a 45-yard pass.
The Wildcats went 75 yards in four plays, ending with a two-yard scramble by Thompson for the opening score and a 7-0 lead.
Northwest Christian (5-3) responded with a mere three-and-out, a preview for the struggle it would have all night moving the ball.
Two drives later, the Wildcats threatened to score again. Thompson led Mesquite (7-1) down the field, and it was on the verge of going up by double-digits early. But junior corner/receiver Bryce Trimble snagged a pass in the end zone for an interception and a change in momentum.
“I was really hyped. They had drove on us, and when it came to me, I knew it was my chance. I tried to take it to the house, but I felt kind of gassed. But it felt great like I did something for the team,” Trimble said.
The Crusaders could not capitalize, though. They had just one substantial offensive drive all half, getting to the red zone but settling for a short field goal to trim the lead to 7-3.
But the defense continued to hold strong, picking off another Thompson pass and holding the Wildcats to just seven points at the halftime break.
“He’s a great quarterback and he made some great throws,” Inness said of Thompson, “But we had two or three picks on him. Our defense was outstanding tonight, I’m really proud.”
The Crusaders’ offensive woes continued, though, as Mesquite senior defensive back Dylan Lorenzen-Hrenko intercepted a bobbled pass and ran it back for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Northwest Christian junior offensive tackle/linebacker Luke Johnson and sophomore offensive guardKaleb Lyons combo block Mesquite junior defensive end Blake Corner during a 4A playoff football quarterfinal in Gilbert Nov. 27 [Courtesy Wendy Johnson/West Valley Preps]
Northwest Christian’s defense held on, blanking the Wildcats in the quarter. But the offense failed to convert a first down all period, falling prey to the pressure of Mesquite’s defensive line.
“They were bringing a blitz off my back side, and I just didn’t do a good job picking that up. Our line and receivers did the best we could, Huisman is a great running back, and I could have done more. But they have some great guys on defense and played us tough,” Crusdaers junior quarterback Blake Sparks said.
From there, the defense that had bent but not broken began giving up long plays. Thompson hit Trotter for his first touchdown pass of the game on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Crusaders answered with a score of their own, capitalizing on great field position for their first touchdown on an eleven-yard run by senior Levi Huisman to trim the lead to 21-10 with 8:55 left in the game.
But from there, the Wildcats ran the ball and the clock, ticking off nearly five minutes before Thompson hit senior Andrew Morris for a 15-yard score that all but ended the game.
On the ensuing drive, junior Jaedyn Winston intercepted a pass – Mesquite’s fourth of the night – and the Wildcats ran out the clock.
Though frustrated with the loss, Sparks said a 5-3 record and solid effort against the defending champion in the team’s first 4A playoff game was worth recognition and shows the conference that the Crusaders can be contenders moving forward.
“This gives the guys like me that are coming back a confidence boost going into games against bigger teams,” Sparks said.
The Crusaders will have to replace several talented seniors from this year’s roster to make it back to the playoffs in 2021. Inness said the team will embrace an underdog mentality but work to become a mainstay in the conference.
With players like Sparks, Trimble, linebacker Luke Johnson and junior two-way linebman David Vivancos back - and junior tailback Grant Gibson hopefully back from a knee injury that wiped out his junior season - Northwest Christian figures to be in the hunt again.
“What’s really fun is next year people are going to think we’re terrible because we graduate a lot of guys. But we do that every year. We’re going to have guys step up and hopefully we’ll be right back here,” Inness said.
No. 3 Mesquite will travel to No. 2 ALA-Queen Creek for the 4A semifinals. The Patriots defeated No. 7 St. Mary’s 40-14.