KENNEWICK — Walla Walla High School’s defense bent, but refused to break during the fourth quarter of its Mid-Columbia Conference football game with Southridge Friday night at Lampson Stadium.
Three holds, coupled with offensive heroics from quarterback Zach Zehner and receivers Reid Magnaghi, Darnell Handcox and Mitch Huffman, resulted in a 26-21 victory that stretched the Blue Devils’ winning streak to five games and disappointed a partisan Suns’ crowd on Senior Night.
Wa-Hi (4-1 MCC, 5-2 overall) pulled into a second-place tie with Richland in the Mid-Columbia standings after Friday’s win.
“The kids rose to every occasion,” Wa-Hi coach Eric Hisaw said in a loud and boisterous Blue Devil locker room afterward. “This was a man’s football game, a physical game.”
The Blue Devil defense forced two turnovers on downs and ended another Suns’ possession with a Magnaghi interception in period four.
Wa-Hi claimed four picks on the night — one each by Handcox, Huffman Magnaghi and Trever Coronado — and has 14 interceptions over its last five games.
On a night when Wa-Hi managed just 35 rushing yards, its passing game displayed fine form. Zehner completed 18-of-32 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns — a 27-yard strike to Huffman with 1:20 left in the first quarter and a 33-yard bomb to Handcox at the 5:35 mark of the third.
Magnaghi paced Blue Devil pass catchers with six receptions for 81 yards. Handcox had five grabs for 61 yards and Huffman netted 54 yards on three catches.
“It was quite exciting,” Magnaghi said. “My teammates and coaches rallied around me (after an early drop). It compelled me to rally on through.”
“Reid played lights out,” Handcox said. “It was his breakout game.”
After a Wa-Hi three-and-out on the game’s initial series, Southridge tallied the game’s first touchdown with 10:18 left in period one. On his team’s opening play from scrimmage, quarterback Jair Ealy-Thomas dropped back from his own 30-yard line and launched a perfect spiral deep down the middle of the field to wide receiver Brenden Kelly — who took it in stride, broke a tackle, and raced into the end zone.
The first of three PAT kicks by Nate Newbry gave the Suns a 7-0 lead.
Wa-Hi closed within a point on the Zehner-to-Huffman connection that occurred on a fourth-and-13 situation. Huffman snagged Zehner’s pass inside the 5 and back-peddled across the goal line.
A blocked extra point left the score at 7-6.
The Blue Devils’ special teams produced a momentum-swinging play midway through the second quarter. Stuart Gillin swatted down a Southridge punt and Daniel Gilmore recovered the ball on the Suns’ 35.
Wa-Hi converted a third-and-goal scenario seven plays later when Zehner juked and jived, bobbed and weaved, and shaked and baked through Southridge defenders for a nine-yard rushing touchdown at the 4:58 mark.
Ethan Gardner booted the PAT to give the Blue Devils a 13-7 advantage.
A pass interference penalty on a fourth-and-3 play from the Suns’ 18 kept Wa-Hi’s possession alive.
The Blue Devil defense stifled two Southridge possessions in the closing minutes of the half. Linebacker Willie Hayes ended the first by sacking Ealy-Thomas for an 11-yard loss and Huffman pillaged an Ealy-Thomas pass.
Masceo Ealy-Thomas brought the crowd to its feet on the second half’s opening kickoff with a 44-yard return to the Wa-Hi 39.
It took the Suns just seven plays to reclaim the lead. Running back Kadin Diaz, who rushed for a game-high 101 yards, scored on a 13-yard carry that helped Southridge grab a 14-13 edge with 9:27 to go in the third quarter.
The Blue Devils responded to the Diaz score with a 74-yard drive that concluded with Zehner’s six-point pass to Handcox, who streaked down the far sideline and hauled in the aerial despite the stride-for-stride effort and outstretched arm of Southridge defender Brandon Zane.
Gardner’s extra point made it 20-14.
Twenty-one seconds later, Handcox stunned the Suns with his league-leading sixth interception of the season. He cut in front of a Jair-Ealy Thomas pass and negotiated from the middle of the field to the far sideline on his way to a 60-yard touchdown, his second pick-six of the year.
“It sparked the whole team,” Handcox said. “It was a key score.”
“Other than that first play, our secondary was outstanding,” Hisaw said. “They have great instincts and understand what we want done. They have a lot of trust in the front seven.”
Diaz ended a 63-yard march with a three-yard touchdown run with 1:06 showing on the third-quarter clock to cut the Wa-Hi margin to five, 26-21.
On its final possession of the game, Southridge began at its 20 and rumbled to the Wa-Hi 15 on the strength of a 17-yard rush by Diaz, and runs of 6, 13, 8, and 21 yards by Masceo Ealy-Thomas.
After a one-yard gain by Masceo Ealy-Thomas to the 14, Jair Ealy-Thomas threw an incompletion.
On third down Jair Ealy-Thomas — despite pressure by Gillin from his linebacker position — dumped a low pass to tight end Bryce Overholt for a five-yard gain to the 9 for fourth-and-4.
Jair Ealy-Thomas, forced out of the passing pocket by a heavy Wa-Hi pass rush, rolled right and heaved a desperation toss toward the deep far corner of the end zone that Masceo Ealy-Thomas caught.
But officials ruled that the catch was made out of bounds, a verdict that set off euphoria on the Wa-Hi sideline and anguishing disbelief for Southridge.
“We put eight guys in the box to plug up the gaps,” Hisaw said. “The kids played fantastic at the end.”
“It was nerve-racking,” lineman Nate Sumerlin said. “They played tough all game long. I had a feeling they’d go to the pass once they got down there.”
Two victory formations later, the game was over.
Wa-Hi returns to Lampson Stadium Friday for a league contest with Kamiakin at 7 p.m.
“(Coach) Hisaw believes in us, we believe in ourselves, and we play our game,” Handcox said. “It’s all heart. We all believe.”
“Our mind-set is that we can do this,” Magnaghi said. “Our coaches keep putting up challenges and we keep knocking them down.”
Wa-Hi 26, Southridge 21
Wa-Hi 6 7 13 0 — 26
Southridge 7 0 14 0 — 21
South — Kelly 70 pass from J. Ealy-Thomas (Newbry kick).
Wa-Hi — Huffman 27 pass from Zehner (kick blocked).
Wa-Hi — Zehner 9 run (Gardner kick).
South — Diaz 13 run (Newbry kick).
Wa-Hi — Handcox 33 pass from Zehner (Gardner kick).
Wa-Hi — Handcox 60 interception return (kick blocked).
South — Diaz 3 run (Newbry kick).
First downs 13 15
Rushes/yards 24-35 39-170
Passing yards 220 152
Passes (att-comp-int) 32-18-1 24-9-4
Punts 6-31.3 2-14.5
Fumbles-lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties-yards 8-73 8-69
RUSHING — Wa-Hi: Zehner 9-27, Hayes 8-8, Gillin 5-2, Team 2-(-2); South: Diaz 20-101, M. Ealy-Thomas 17-85, Team 1-(-5), J. Ealy-Thomas 1-(-11).
PASSING — Wa-Hi: Zehner 18-32-1, 220 yards 2 TDs; South: J. Ealy-Thomas 9-24-4, 152 yards, 1 TD.
RECEIVING — Wa-Hi: Magnaghi 6-81, Handcox 5-61-1, Gillin 4-24, Huffman 3-54; South: Kelly 4-100-1, M. Ealy-Thomas 2-21, Gonzalez 1-17, Bauman 1-9, Overholt 1-5.