SPOKANE — When Cusick scored three touchdowns in what seemed like a blink of an eye here Friday night, it must have seemed like deja vu for Touchet’s football faithful.
Because they had seen this movie before.
Just one year ago in Moses Lake, Almira-Coulee-Hartline got off to a similar quick start and buggy whipped the Indians 52-8 in a Class 1B-8 quarterfinal football game. And now it was happening again at the hands of the unbeaten Panthers, who had outscored their 11 previous opponents by an average of 51 points.
But what had all the makings of a blowout early evolved into a riveting battle of wills between two determined teams. A game that had more twists and turns, more ups and downs than a Coney Island roller coaster.
And even though the Indians came up short on the final play of the long, chilly night, it will be a game long remembered and often talked about out on Touchet’s alkali flats.
“I couldn’t have been prouder of a group of kids than I was last night,” Touchet coach Gary Dorman said as he reflected on his team’s 44-38 loss to the Panthers that ended his team’s season. “We didn’t make it to the next level, but this team grew leaps and bounds the last half of the season, and they just never quit.”
Friday night’s game at Gonzaga Prep wasn’t decided until the final play of the game when Ryan Sample, Cusick’s jitterbug senior quarterback, connected with his equally elusive halfback, senior Derrick Bluff, who made a diving catch in the left corner of the end zone.
The 14-yard completion was Bluff’s fifth touchdown of the game, and it snapped a 38-38 tie that had held for three breathtaking minutes after the Indians had rallied for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to draw even with the Panthers.
The Indians tied the game with 3:06 on the clock when senior Vicente Flores hauled in a pass from junior quarterback Elias Martinez on Cusick’s 35-yard line, spun out of a defender’s grasp and sprinted into the end zone to complete a 50-yard play. Martinez then lofted a two-point conversion pass to Cori Ochoa for the 38-38 standoff.
Flores set up the game-tying score two minutes earlier when he recovered his own squib kick at midfield. The squib kick came seconds after Touchet senior Jose Martinez scored on a 1-yard plunge with 5:12 to play that made it a one-possession game.
The final three minutes will be remembered for a couple of electrifying plays that preceded Bluff’s game-winning touchdown.
Playing for the first time in a game that was still in doubt in the fourth quarter, Cusick showed its mettle by driving from its own 35-yard line to the Touchet 25 with 1:36 on the clock. But Flores came up big for the Indians again, intercepting a Sample pass near the goal-line and returning the pick to his own 37 before he was bumped out of bounds with 1:06 to play.
“Vicente almost broke that one,” Dorman said. “There was one last guy to beat, but they kind of had him pinned up against the sidelines. But the momentum was ours.”
Jose Martinez picked up five yards and Elias Martinez carried twice for 18 yards as the Indians pushed their way back into Cusick territory at the 41-yard line. But on a third-and-10 play with 31.4 seconds showing, Elias Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Bluff on his own 25, and the 150-pound speedster set sail.
Bluff skirted to his left, streaked down the sideline and then cut back to the right. However, just before he raced into the end zone a teammate blocked a pursuing Indian in the back at the 4-yard line and three yellow flags reined down.
With a mere 3.5 seconds on the clock, game officials marched the ball back to the 14. Sample took the center snap from shotgun formation and didn’t hesitate. He fired the ball on target to Bluff, who was angling toward the left pylon and made the grab just as he dove into the end zone.
“They scored on the first play of the game and on the last play of the game,” Dorman said. “You’d like to have at least one of those back.”
Dorman said he didn’t regret not playing it a little safer in the final minute of play and taking his chances in overtime.
“We figured, let’s take advantage of them being back on their heels and not able to regroup,” Dorman said of his team’s last possession. “And our kids were hyped up. Hindsight is 20-20, but we had a couple of big play makers who can make a lot of things happen. Let’s take a shot. Why not?”
Bluff ignited Cusick’s fast start by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Touchet punted the ball away after picking up one first down, and three players later Bluff hauled in a 24-yard TD pass for a 12-0 Cusick lead barely four minutes into the game.
Again the Indians picked up one first down before turning the ball back to the Panthers when Elias’ Martinez’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete. This time it took Cusick seven plays to drive 53 yards, with Bluff scoring the touchdown on a 1-yard run with 2:24 remaining in the first period.
Trailing 18-0, the Indians responded with their best sustained drive of the night. They traveled 73 yards on 17 plays. Sophomore Colter McKeown capped the drive with a 5-yard run and Jose Martinez bulled in for the two-point conversion.
Suddenly, due in part to Cusick’s inability to convert following its three TDs, the Indians were back in the game, trailing 18-8 5:30 before halftime.
“It’s one of those things where less room on the field to defend negates some of that speed,” Dorman said of his team’s success thwarting Cusick two-point tries. “It’s a shorter field, and they are not a grind-it-out football team.”
The Indians missed an opportunity to inflict further damage when McKeown recovered Flores’ onside kick at the Cusick 34-yard line. On third-and-10, Elias Martinez was sacked for a seven-yard loss and the Panthers took over on their own 41-yard line.
And Sample made the Indians pay as he found Bluff over the middle for a 57-yard touchdown with 3:25 on the second-quarter clock. Sample also hit senior James Brazda for the two-pointer and Cusick was on top 26-8.
Elias Martinez’s 45-yard touchdown run and Jose Martinez’s two-pointer got the Indians back with 10 points with 1:47 remaining in the half. But Cusick responded with an eight-play scoring drive that boosted their halftime lead to 32-16. Alec Bluff, a 180-pound sophomore, scored the TD on a 10-yard pass from Sample.
The Indians turned the ball over on downs to begin the second half. And it didn’t take long for Cusick to score again as sophomore Elijah Peterson broke a 27-yard TD run at 7:48 of the third quarter.
The Panthers’ 38-16 lead looked almost insurmountable.
But the Indians responded with a 49-yard scoring drive, capped by McKeown’s second TD of the game on a 23-yard run. Jose Martinez added the two-pointer to cut Cusick’s lead to 38-24.
After a rare exchange of punts, the Indians’ defense came up with a fourth-down stop at midfield. It took five plays to reach the Panthers’ end zone, with Jose Martinez’s 1-yard plunge drawing the Tribe within 38-30 and setting the stage for the final five minutes of pure pandemonium.
Touchet senior Octavio Preciado was the game’s leading ground gainer with 88 yards on 17 carries as the Indians outrushed the Panthers 231-138. Sample completed 16-of-22 passes for 265 yards and three scores as Cusick outgained the Indians by nearly 200 yards through the air. Derrick Bluff had seven catches for 132 yards.
Cusick moves on to this weekend’s semifinals against No. 1-ranked Liberty Christian, which dispatched Lacrosse-Washtucna 70-8 Friday night. The Indians finished their season with a 9-2 mark.