LAS VEGAS – Two games against Desert Pines, each providing a loss for the Spring Creek football team – but the contests were very different.
In the 2016 state championship, the Spartans hung with the Jaguars early and faded in the second half.
Saturday in the 2017 3A state semifinal, mistakes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth hurt Spring Creek – not so much fatigue.
Spring Creek battled Desert Pines every snap and placed the Jaguars in a position they have not experienced all season against a 3A team, a dogfight until the fourth quarter.
The Jaguars came up with big plays on defense and special teams, extending to a 50-28 victory and a berth in the state championship in their bid to repeat as champions.
Spring Creek received the opening kick and picked up three first downs on their first drive, two coming on the ground by senior running back Jason Painter and the other a pass from senior quarterback Thomas Ledford to senior receiver Dakota Larson.
The Spartans stalled at the Desert Pines 37-yard line and punted.
Desert Pines picked up first downs with a pass over the middle to sophomore tight end Darnell Washington and junior receiver Tye Moore to the Spring Creek 47.
With 5:30 remaining in the first quarter, the Jaguars brought a man in motion to the right and ran a sweep with sophomore running back Michael Lofton.
Lofton stuck his foot in the ground at the right tackle and turned north-south, finding nothing but running room for the game’s first score.
The extra point was added by junior kicker Victor Palafox, giving Desert Pines a 7-0 lead.
Spring Creek’s second drive nearly ended on the first play with a bad transfer on a handoff, and the Jaguars forced the Spartans to punt.
Desert Pines attempted to move the ball on the ground with Lofton and sophomore Jyden King, but the Spartans stepped up and rallied to the football – gaining big tackles by senior Trey Edson and seniors Jason Painter and Anthony Chavez, forcing a punt after great pressure on a pass play from senior K-Ci Slade.
The momentum was short-lived.
Spring Creek’s drive began at its own 1 following a great kick, and the Spartans’ first play closed with an interception by senior cornerback Andre Rogers – who caught a deflection when the intended receiver was smacked just as the ball arrived.
From the Spring Creek 5, Lofton bulled his way over and through defenders – giving the Jaguars a 13-0 lead with 1:29 on the clock.
The snap on the extra point hit low, and placeholder Moore was pushed out of bounds by Larson as Moore tried to pulled a Tony Romo.
Spring Creek was shut down on its following drive and Desert Pines threatened to blow the game open early in the second quarter.
The Jaguars moved the ball downfield with passes to Washington, King and junior Ezekiel Washington.
From the Spring Creek 31, Darnell Washington caught a pass in the flat and made several Spartans miss, running over several others.
In the process of fighting for yards, he left the ball exposed – changing the outlook of the contest with a single swipe of an arm.
Edson jarred the bar loose, Chavez made a crucial recovery and the Spartans used the play to jumpstart their success.
On first following the takeaway from their own 27, the Spartans went deep.
Ledford heaved a shot down the left sideline, and Larson worked back toward the middle of the field – gaining inside leverage and the football near the Jaguars’ 40.
Larson did the rest after the catch, cashing in for a 73-yard strike.
Sophomore Ethan Lulay kicked the extra point and pulled Spring Creek to within 13-7 with 9:27 remaining in the half.
Desert Pines tried ripping a page from the Spartans’ playbook, junior quarterback Tyler Williamson firing a dime down the left side to Moore from the 32 to inside the Spring Creek 15 – coming back.
The Jaguars were called for offensive pass interference and an ineligible man downfield, setting up 2nd-and-forever.
On 3rd-and-31 from the 17, Spring Creek dodged another bullet.
Williamson sent another beauty down the seam and hit a wide-open receiver in stride beyond midfield but the pass was dropped.
A great punt of 60 yards nearly flipped the field to the Spring Creek 23; then the Spartans really did flip the field.
Go with what worked on the previous offensive play – deep shot.
Split wide-left out of the backfield, Ledford launched the traditional nine-route go to Painter down the sideline.
He made the catch against good coverage, broke free from the tackle and took it to the house for a 77-yard touchdown.
Two plays, two passes, two touchdowns – 150 yards of offense.
Lulay added the PAT, giving the Spartans a 14-13 lead with 6:33 remaining in the half.
Picking up first downs by junior Devin McGee and Lofton, the Jaguars regained the lead from the Spartans’ 28.
Desert Pines ran a draw to King and he burst up the middle, the PAT giving the Jags a 20-14 lead with 3:04 remaining in the half.
The Spartans were forced to punt on their next drive and a one-handed pick attempt ended badly for Spring Creek on defense.
On the first play from scrimmage, the Jaguars ran a deep-post route – the tipped ball winding up in the hands of King for a 40-yard touchdown with 1:42 on the clock.
The extra point gave Desert Pines a 27-13 lead at the break.
Kicking off to start the third quarter, the Spartans went onside – big gamble, big payoff.
Junior Brock Gilligan pounced on the football and gave Spring Creek possession at the Desert Pines 48.
The Spartans picked up three straight first downs with carries by Painter to the Jaguars’ 24, before cramps forced Painter to come out of the game.
Sophomore Reed Westwood made a strong run, splitting through the middle with a purpose, running with bad intentions and force to the Desert Pines 7.
The Jags stiffened and the Spartans went with a great play call from the 5, running a play-action boot to the right.
Ledford rolled out of the pocket and senior tight end Jake Oliphant leaked out of the line toward the corner of the end zone against Rogers.
Oliphant at 6-foot-5, Rogers gifted at 5-9 – advantage Spartans.
Ledford put the ball high, Oliphant made the catch over the defense and the Spartans were alive and well.
Lulay’s extra point pulled Spring Creek to within six at 27-21 with 7:18 remaining in the third quarter.
Spring Creek forced a punt with a tackle by Slade and Westwood, great pressure by junior lineman Chance Bailey and tight coverage down the middle by Lulay – but the Spartans were sacked on third down on their next drive.
King scored for the Jaguars but the run was brought back by a penalty.
Slade and Chavez combined for a tackle, while Oliphant, Edson and Lulay rallied to the ball for another stop in the backfield.
A third-down pass fell incomplete and Desert Pines had to settle for a 37-yard field goal, but the Jaguars were called for another penalty on an illegal formation.
Moving the ball back to the 25 and facing a 42-yard kick, the Jags sent the offense on the field.
Williamson sent a pass to the end zone, putting the ball high to the 6-6 Darnell Washington – but Lulay climbed the ladder and got a hand on the pass, forcing a turnover on downs.
Spring Creek was forced to punt, but the kick began a downward spiral of events for the Spartans when the ball was nailed into the back of the head of a lineman.
Sophomore Gabriel Lopez collected the ball in the air and Desert Pines took over on the Spring Creek 27.
The Spartans played inspired defense with their backs up against the wall, Edson making a big stop on third down.
Palafox came on and gave the Jaguars a two-possession lead at 30-21 with a 29-yard field goal with 11:14 remaining in the game.
After Painter came out of the game with a cramp, Spring Creek’s second play of the ensuing drive ended with a botched handoff – senior Tyce Odunze picking up the pigskin and advancing all the way to the Spartans’ 1.
Lofton met contact at the goal line and spun away, giving Desert Pines a 37-21 lead following the extra point with 10:16 on the clock, punching home his third rushing touchdown.
The Spartans picked up a first down with a pass to sophomore Jeff Guthrie, but Spring Creek was forced to punt.
Senior Jordan Howden nearly went the distance with an incredible 55-yard return – making men miss, breaking some tackles and spinning out of others.
From the Spring Creek 5, King worked from the middle and bounced outside – scoring as he placed the ball on the pylon on the right edge while going out of bounds for his third score of the game.
The extra point gave the Jaguars a 44-21 lead with 7:09 remaining.
The Spartans picked up three-consecutive first downs through the air, Larson moving the sticks twice and Oliphant once.
Ledford and Painter each gave the Spartans a fresh set of downs on the ground, advancing the ball to the Desert Pines 8.
Facing 4th-and-goal from the 5, Ledford dropped back to pass but was flushed from the pocket.
He broke free to the right side and scored Spring Creek’s final touchdown of the year, Lulay adding the PAT.
Ledford finished the game with four total TDs, three through air and one on the ground.
Trailing 44-28 with seven second remaining, Spring Creek went for an onside kick.
Darnell Washington took exception and the football, racing to the end zone – the Jaguars dashing back to the 3A state championship game with a 50-28 victory.
Congratulations to the Spartans and coach Mike Tournahu for another successful season in his first year as the face of the program, giving quite a battle to a school with a larger freshman class than Spring Creek has total students.
“We put them in a place they haven’t been in all year. We made them play hard. They have some great athletes and they’re a very good football team, but our kids played them tough,” Tournahu said. “To come down here and have a couple chances to take the lead in the second half, I can’t ask any more of our kids than that. Our kids gave a great effort.”
As the Jaguars attempt to repeat as state champions, they will face South No. 2 Mojave – which beat North No. 1 Fernley 42-13 in the other 3A semifinal.
The Jaguars have already faced the Rattlers once this season, rolling Mojave on Oct. 6 by a final score of 35-6 at Desert Pines High School.
The rematch in the 3A state title game will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bishop Gorman High School.