Some of the things people love about sports are the stories of one team being down, fighting through adversity and being successful in the end.
Most of the time, you’ll hear a lot of “We always knew we had it in us” and “Everyone else doubted us, but we didn’t.”
Usually, that’s a load of garbage. And that’s why it was so refreshing to hear some honesty coming from the Pahrump Valley High School football team Friday night after the win over Del Sol.
“We definitely as a team had some doubts, but we came together and totally got rid of all our doubts,” said junior Dylan Wright, who did a little bit of everything against the Dragons.
“I wonder if it was the team meeting we had one evening,” said coach Joe Clayton, referring to a Monday evening meeting, which at the time seemed like a convenient excuse to avoid talking football with an annoying reporter rather than an actual event.
But an event it apparently was.
“After practice the team had a huge talk, and we talked through everything and what we have to do,” added junior Tony Margiotta. “We practiced our butts off, did what we had to do and now we’re ready.”
“We became a family again,” was how sophomore quarterback Roman Roberts put it.
A lot was said earlier in the year about how similar the 2019 season was to the 2018 season, but there were two huge differences. First, the 2018 team opened league play with a win and rolled from there, while this year’s team got beat pretty good by Cheyenne in its league opener. And second, the injury situation this year has been brutal, as the Trojans have been struggling to keep above 20 active players each week.
So starting 1-5 seemed a whole lot worse than starting 1-3 did last year. But repeating as Sunset League champs would require some help in the form of someone else beating Cheyenne. And while that seems very unlikely, just last year Sunrise Mountain found a way to defeat Virgin Valley and knock a 7-2 team out of the playoffs on the other side of the region. So there’s always a chance.
In any event, the same weak league that makes it unlikely the Trojans can back into first place with the Desert Shields also makes it very reasonable to think they will finish second. Del Sol has more offensive talent than Valley (the Dragons are averaging roughly one touchdown more per game), the Trojans’ final regular season opponent on Oct. 24. And, judging by the scores this season, I’m not entirely sure Western even puts a team on the field.
Taken together, if there were lines on high school football games — and please, please, please don’t let that ever happen — the Trojans would be slight favorites against Valley and Western would be off the board. (Consider it sports book euthanasia.) Win those games and, at 4-5 overall, the Trojans would be your No. 2 seed in the Sunset League and would host a first-round playoff game on Nov. 1.
It’s anybody’s guess who that opponent might be. All we do know is that the Sunrise League is again stronger than the Sunset in Class 3A South.
“You realize there’s going to be a three-way tie on the other side?” Clayton said after Friday’s game. “Boulder City beat Moapa tonight. Virgin Valley beat Boulder City, Boulder City beat Moapa, so Moapa would have to beat Virgin Valley and there will be a three-way tie for the No. 1 seed. It will go by score, and that will be interesting.”
Virgin Valley shut out Pahrump Valley, while Boulder City edged the Trojans in overtime in a game that was absolutely ruined by incompetent officiating. Take a wild guess which of the three Sunrise teams Clayton and the Trojans would want to see come to Pahrump in two weeks.
The offensive line on any team operates in relative anonymity, but the Trojans’ offense requires exceptionally skilled work out of that group, and the injuries this season — start with top lineman Armani McGhee, but don’t stop there — don’t change that necessity.
“We brought up two JV kids,” Clayton said. “Our starting right tackle was a kid who never played varsity before.”
For the record, the starting O-line included sophomore Jonathan Rios, junior Anthony Pearson, senior Miguel Belman, sophomore Dylan Severt and senior Caleb Sproul. Pearson became the jack-of-all-trades for the Trojans.
“We moved Anthony Pearson to every important job,” Clayton said. “Depending on what play we’d run, he’d move. He was tackle and both guards tonight.”
For people who think offensive linemen are interchangeable and all they do is push people out of the way, that might not sound like a big deal. You’ll just have to trust me on this: It’s a huge deal, and that Pearson was successful at it tells you a lot about him.
“Last year he was our starting guard for the whole season, and he was phenomenal,” Clayton said of Pearson. “Instead of trying to rely on a kid who’s never played varsity before against a good Del Sol team, we might as well have Anthony get the job done.”
Moving people around just to run the next play is not exactly an ideal situation.
“That just explains where we’re at, what we’ve had to do creatively to make it work.” Clayton said.
More missing parts
Pahrump Valley played without two players who were ejected from the Cheyenne game after an altercation. Clayton said that two players from each team were tossed, and he was told they were tossed for throwing punches. And once officials make a call, however absurd — film showed none of the players on either team threw a punch, Clayton said — they are unlikely to admit a mistake and reverse it.
“We didn’t have Jacob Lopez, we didn’t have Andrew Avena,” Clayton said. “(Thursday) was the final decision, but I kind of had a feeling. There’s not an appeal process, they would have had to overturn their original call completely.”
Their original horrible, baffling, mysterious and utterly silly call. That one. Stop me if you’re heard this before.
With the prevalence of the spread among football offenses at all levels, defenses spend much of their time preparing for it. But by coincidence, Del Sol was the first real spread team the Trojans faced all year.
“We’ve been practicing against these spread teams, and we haven’t been facing too many of them,” Wright said. “So to see a true spread team was honestly a nice refresher.”
Of course, stopping it is another matter, and the Trojans were simply horrible at it during the first half. The Dragons motored 63 yards on their first drive, were stopped by a Henry Amaya interception inside the Pahrump Valley 10 on their second, went 97 yards on just five plays — all on the ground — on their third, and had a potential touchdown pass bounce off of a receiver’s chest on their fourth, which ended on a missed field goal.
“They were running right up and down the field on us,” Clayton said. “When you got a team that goes from a run formation and into a spread like that, that puts us into a big bind because of our lack of bodies. We can’t put four or five big bodies up there and then pull them off when they run a spread. So you kind of have to go with the personnel you have.
“They had the size on us. The big bodies we brought up from JV are offensive guys, and they’re not ready for this level defensively. We had four defensive linemen, and if one of them got hurt I don’t know what we were going to do.”
And with Del Sol quarterback Damani Wilks dominating the first half, rushing for 140 yards by intermission, you’ve got a problem. And it wasn’t all speed, either. Wilks was very impressive in the open field, patiently waiting for blocking downfield and knowing when to accelerate or make a cut.
“He’s a good athlete,” Clayton said. “When he got in the open field, he would set his blocks up. He would come one way, wait and then cut back off of a block. I thought his teammates did a great job of blocking downfield, too.
“When they run the ball right at you, you’re putting some of your smaller skill guys on the edge as opposed to big bodies, and that’s why they had some success kind of pushing up front a little bit. Then, when they spread us out, it’s still that athleticism and speed. They were marching up and down the field.”
While the Trojans’ tackling was markedly better during the second half, tackling Wilks wasn’t that necessary after halftime. The player who carried 10 times for 140 yards during the first two quarters carried just four times for 13 yards during the latter two. Six runs for 13 yards or more during the first half became none during the second half.
It was all circumstance. The Dragons put together a tremendous drive to open the third quarter, overcoming two holding calls and an illegal block to take a 21-8 lead. On their next series, Wilks fumbled. An onside kick gave the Trojans consecutive possessions, so by the time Wilks touched the ball again the Dragons were trailing by 11 with 3:34 left. It was time to go to the air.
In other words, the Trojans had more to do with Wilks not running the ball as much in the second half as any play calling by the Dragons.
Under the other center …
While Wilks was terrorizing the Trojans for one half and disappearing for much of the other, Roberts was his usual steady presence. In the Pahrump Valley offense, if you notice the quarterback he’s probably screwing up, save for the occasional pass designed as much to catch the defense off guard and make them think about the next potential pass as it is to gain yardage.
Since taking over for Wright at quarterback, Roberts has been a mostly seamless part of the offensive machine. Situationally, he has had to throw more than the Trojans would like, as they have trailed a lot this season, but Friday night was back to normal, as he threw just three passes all game, completing one to — in a weird twist — his predecessor, Wright, for a 16-yard gain.
“It was a little weird hitting the other team with a pass, too,” Roberts joked about an interception. You can joke about that when you win.
In any event, the sophomore is comfortable in the job, much the way Wright was comfortable as a sophomore taking over for senior Tyler Floyd last season.
“Many games under the belt now, feeling better,” Roberts said. “I’m able to communicate with my other players.”
Beating Del Sol was absolutely essential. Falling behind 14-0 and 21-8 was not. It might have taken an onside kick and a key turnover to do it, but the Trojans coming back from those deficits to win a critical game said a lot to all involved, especially after going in with a 1-5 record.
“The road here was very hard, going through that preseason, getting us better, but it really worked out,” Roberts said, perhaps already assuming wins over Western (duh) and Valley.
“It’s been a tough preseason schedule, but it’s making us better for league,” Wright added.
Del Sol came in 3-3, but the Trojans knew that record was accomplished against an easier schedule than the one that pinned five losses on Pahrump Valley.
“Every loss has been a good loss for us, learning from our mistakes,” Roberts said. “Persevering as a group really helped us come together through that tough preseason, and now we’re getting into it.”
“We explained to them and put it in perspective,” Clayton said about his message to the team before facing Del Sol. “We explained their three wins were against lesser opponents than our losses. W’re playing a team we can beat, so let’s beat them. We said good things are going to happen if we keep working hard.”
And while players might have had doubts about their 1-5, 0-1 Sunset start, nobody had any doubts about coming back from 21-8 down in the third quarter.
“We knew we had it after the first quarter,” Roberts said. “We started stepping up our game, really getting in there on defense and on offense.”
“That’s huge to come back like that, being a couple of scores down especially the way our defense was playing,” Clayton said.
And they all know what’s ahead: Try to stay awake against Western, beat Valley and host a playoff game.
“We won a game, now we can just finish out,” Clayton said. “We told them, we win out we’re the No. 2 seed with a home playoff game.”
“That’s very key for playoffs, getting that No. 2 seed,” Roman said. The alternative, a first-round game at Moapa Valley or Virgin Valley, most likely, isn’t quite as appealing as welcoming Boulder City back to Trojan Field.
Key plays you’ve already forgotten
Jalen Denton had one carry all game, but it sure came in handy. With the Trojans down 14-0 midway through the second quarter, Denton went wide to the left and didn’t stop until he reached the Del Sol 29-yard line, a gain of 34 yards. The play electrified the Trojans’ sideline and led to their first score of the game.
The Dragons almost answered, but Wilks’ attempt at a scoring pass in the closing seconds seemed to bounce right off of the numbers of his receiver. With Del Sol getting the ball to start the second half, it was a crucial play. He might have been distracted by the coverage, but then there was the next key play.
The catch of the game came on the Dragons’ first drive of the third quarter. Wilks found Nati Asfaw over the middle inside the Pahrump Valley 5, but the ball was tipped upward. Asfaw displayed impressive concentration with defenders around him and made the catch, giving Del Sol first-and-goal at the 2. It took three plays before Wilks took matters into his own hands for a 21-8 Dragons lead.
The next key play was the very next one, as Wright turned in the best kickoff return of the night to give Pahrump Valley good field position at their own 41. Wright, as he had earlier in the game, bobbled the kick and had to recover the ball before heading upfield, but once he did he went for 27 yards, getting some of the momentum back after the Del Sol touchdown. Three plays later, Wright was on the receiving end of the only Pahrump Valley completion of the game, and Tony Margiotta’s short TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter pulled the Trojans within five.
While the Dragons had issues fielding onside kickoffs throughout the game — which would finally cost them dearly in the fourth quarter — Kenny Delker made sure the Trojans had no trouble on the biggest one of the night. After going 55 yards on three plays in 42 seconds to make it a 32-27 game, the Dragons tried an onside kick with 2:52 left. Delker fielded it an held on despite a massive hit.
“Wasn’t that a great recovery?” Clayton asked rhetorically. “That was a huge play. He knew he was going to get popped, too.”
Of course, the two interceptions were key plays, but they can’t really fall into the “you’ve already forgotten” category. If you did, perhaps you should keep the cold ones for after the game.
Just one more thing …
Margiotta’s 27-carry, 128-yard performance marked his third 100-yard game of the season. Of course, he has only played three full games. He doesn’t look big enough to be the workhorse back he is, but not only is he carrying almost half of the offensive load for the Trojans — the rest of the team combined for 29 carries — he looks like he never missed time with a knee injury. “It’s like he hasn’t even skipped a beat,” Clayton said.
But to be fair, and as punishment for not knowing the name of the reporter who has been making him a star since August, there were two occasions on which Del Sol stopped the Pahrump Valley junior in key spots. The Trojans’ best drive of the night saw them go from their 20 to the Del Sol 3 on a series that bridged the first and second quarters. Margiotta, Wright and Kody Peugh each had runs of 10-plus yards on the 13-play drive, and when a face mask penalty moved the ball half the distance to the goal line, the Trojans had first-and-goal at the 7.
A pitch gained nothing. A pass in the end zone was incomplete, and a third-down run brought the Trojans to the 3, where Margiotta was stopped cold on fourth down. That’s when the Dragons turned around and went 97 yards on six plays for their second touchdown.
The second time came much later. Much, much later. As in when Pahrump Valley was trying to run out the clock after Delker recovered the onside kick. During a timeout called by Del Sol with 2:36 left, Clayton screamed on the sideline, “Two plays, 7 yards wins the game.” That was before a false start made it 12 yards. Margiotta got 9 yards back on third down on a pitch to the right, but a similar play was stopped cold on fourth-and-3, giving the Dragons a chance with 1:40 to go on their own 44.
“When we didn’t get that last first down, that was crushing,” Clayton said. And it almost was, as the Dragons moved 24 yards on two plays before Wright intercepted that ill-advised floater from Wilks to end the threat.