The Mesa T-Birds football team fell short against the Scottsdale Artichokes 45-31 in the Valley of the Sun Bowl on Nov. 9 at the Round Valley Dome in Eager, Ariz.
It was the second consecutive season that resulted in a runner-up finish in the Western States Football League championship game for Mesa.
The T-Birds finish league play with an 8-2 record overall and improved upon last season’s 6-5 record.
To start the game, the T-Birds looked sharp on their first possession scoring on an 11-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Blake Kemp to sophomore wide receiver Torrance Carr on a 76-yard eight play drive.
The Artichokes responded quickly with a touchdown pass on their first possession driving 72 yards in eight plays making it 7-7 early in the first quarter.
The Artichokes took the lead 14-7 after their next possession went 73 yards in three plays highlighted by a 51-yard run with 6:03 left in the first quarter.
Not only was the touchdown a blow to the T-Birds, but sophomore defensive back Demarlon Morris and an Artichoke player were ejected for fighting during the 51-yard play.
Morris has been an asset throughout the season with his plays on special teams and on defense, and losing him that early in the championship game was a big loss for Mesa.
The T-Birds put themselves in good position to take advantage of a failed fake punt attempt by the Artichokes putting Mesa on the Artichoke 44-yard line.
The Scottsdale defense pressured Kemp into throwing a pass that was intercepted and returned 79 yards for a touchdown adding to the Artichoke lead 21-7 with 2:11 left in the first quarter.
The hit that Kemp took resulted in an unspecified shoulder injury that kept him out of the game the rest of the evening, and freshman backup quarterback Brad Schencker tookover from there.
Losing Kemp changes the look of the offense because Kemp is a dual-threat player, whereas Schencker is more of a pocket passer.
The T-Birds freshman placekicker Brian Franklin added a field goal, and freshman defensive back Landry Payne scored a touchdown on an interception returned 26 yards.
Scottsdale added a field goal as well to end the first half with a 24-17 lead at halftime.
In the second half, the T-Birds could not establish the momentum to take over the game from behind.
Schencker did throw for 172 yards and two passing touchdowns, but two of his three interceptions were returned for touchdowns and Scottsdale never looked back.
Sophomore running back Michael Allen led all T-Bird rushers with 109 yards from his 12 carries.
Sophomore wide receivers Omar Rodriguez, Carr, and Cody Saul were productive in the game with Rodriguez pulling down seven receptions for 100 yards, Carr registered six receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns, and Saul had 64 yards receiving with one touchdown.
On defense, Payne grabbed two interceptions for the game and added five total tackles.
Sophomore linebacker Daniel Peterson led all defenders with 13 total tackles, followed by sophomore defensive back Tigi Hill’s 11 tackles, and sophomore linebacker Asi Hosea’s nine tackles.
The T-Birds still have one more game left before they end the football season as they have been invited to their second consecutive bowl game.
Mesa will take their 8-2 record to Texas for the C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl in Copperas Cove, Texas on Dec. 7 at 11 a.m.against sixth-ranked Trinity Valley (Texas) who sports a 9-2 record and are the champions of the Southwest Junior College Conference.