It was a chilly night at Cyclone stadium Friday night but the Sand Devils, running on high-octane, playoff adrenaline hardly noticed it.
The No. 4 seeded Sand Devils brilliant season ended Friday night during the 3A quarterfinals game against the No. 5 seeded Valley Christian Trojans. This was the second meeting between the two this season. The Sand Devils beat them 22-15 in week four.
The Valley Christian defense focused on Page running back Kele Meredith, and rightly so.
Meredith was just a few yards shy of having a 2,000 yards rushing for the season. After Friday night’s game Meredith finished his three year career with 4,810 rushing yards and 47 touchdowns.
And Meredith wasted no time showing the Trojans his capabilities. The Sand Devils started the game on offense and found themselves on their own 40 yard line after a 15 yard kick-off return. The first offensive play was a hand-off to Meredith up the middle, who quickly bounced outside and burned up 60 yards of hashmarks for the game’s first touchdown. A successful run during the PAT gave them an eight point lead.
During Meredith’s 60 yard scamper he surpassed the amazing benchmark of 2,000 rushing yards in a season.
Only eight seconds had run off the clock. But the Sand Devils wouldn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
The Sand Devils knew from watching film of the Trojans that their passing game has improved a lot since their first meeting, and, led by their 6 foot five inch senior quarterback they came out throwing, gaining 15 yards on their first play and capped that with 46 yard touchdown pass on their second play from scrimmage. They kicked in an extra point. The Sand Devils held a one-point lead with less than a minute burned off the clock.
The Sand Devils went three and out on their next two possessions, but the Trojans scored again on their second drive crafting a steady, well-executed drive that began on their own 38 yard line. This time they turned to their running game. They took the lead 14-8 with 3:45 left in the first quarter. They nearly scored again on their third drive but the Sand Devils defense stopped them on their 20, where the Trojans attempted a field goal. It went wide right.
Starting from their own 20 the Sand Devils assembled a great drive, most of which came on small, steady gains from Meredith, including a five yard, fourth down conversion, but also included pass completions to Justin Salabiye and Makaio Warner. But the drive ended on a Meredith fumble on the Trojans one-yard line.
The Sand Devils defense forced the Trojans to punt on their next two possessions, and the Sand Devils offensive drive ended on an unconverted fourth down run from quarterback Robert Smith to end the half, with the Trojans leading by six.The Trojans would score twice more in the third quarter, on long drives that ate up a lot of clock, creating a 28-8 lead going into the fourth quarter.
After a scoring drought going all the way back to the game’s first play, the Sand Devils scored on their first possession of the fourth quarter, a drive that began in the waning minutes of the third quarter. It was a drive that involved two fourth-down conversions. On second and goal from the five Smith ran it into the endzone on a designed quarterback keeper. An endzone pass came up short on the PAT. The Sand Devils had cut the lead in half, 28-14 with 8:37 left in the game.
During the ensuing kickoff Hayden Gracia tackled the returned on the Trojans’ 17 yard line. Three plays later the Sand Devils tenacious defense forced and recovered a Trojans fumble in the Redzone. Runs from Meredith and Smith advanced the ball to the three yard line.
On fourth and goal from the three every Trojan was keyed on Meredith. Smith faked the hand-off to Meredith, who charged into the line. Smith rolled out to his left and found Salabiye in the endzone. Touchdown!
Smith added two points, more running straight up the middle, on the point after. They had reduced the Trojans lead to six with 4:13 remaining.
The Sand Devils needed one more stop, and they came close. The Trojans went for it on fourth and one and successful pass in the flat earned them the necessary yards. After that they switched to their running game and ran down the clock. Coach Mitchell Stephens used his final timeouts but after that they were unable to stop the clock from running out.
The final score read Trojans 28, Sand Devils 22.
“Our motto this year was `Finish strong’ and that’s exactly what we did,” said coach Stephens. “We just needed a little bit more time.”
Coach Stephens said he was disappointed in the loss but very proud of the season he, his players and coaches put together, and especially the effort they all put into every practice and game.
“They battled tonight, like they’ve battled every night this season,” he said.
The 28-20 loss ended what has been the Sand Devils best season since 1974.
This was Mitchell Stephens second year as head coach for the Sand Devils. After two seasons he is 11-1 at home. He said after the game that he plans to return next season, and that he’s very optimistic about the future of Sand Devils football.
“We’ve got good players coming on,” he said. “The Panthers won the NAIC championship and this year’s JV had a really great season.”