An overwhelming favorite. The biggest game of some of the players’ lives. A touchdown deficit with mere seconds to go, the underdog 10 yards away. A catch on the game’s final play, an outstretched receiver coming up mere inches short.
To some, Super Bowl XXXIV’s drama still lives on in memory, but to teenagers armed with pads, helmets and jerseys of green and yellow or red and blue at Coachella Valley High School, Friday’s version of “The Tackle” will go down in Bell Game lore.
In future years, Rajahs will tell the story with remorse. A massive underdog to the undefeated Arabs, while coming off two consecutive 30-plus point losses, Indio caught fire in the game’s opening minutes but couldn’t hold on late, a win a mere seven points away in a 34-27 loss.
Bu the Arabs were far from jovial post-game. Coming into Friday night’s annual battle, senior lineman Nick Hernandez said the team’s 3-0 start and yearly beat downs of the Rajahs had gotten to some players’ heads.
The shock of trailing three separate times in the first half, he said, was jarring.
“Our players came in and underestimated Indio by a lot,” he said. “We came in really cocky and shouldn’t have.
“We did prove we were the tougher team again, but it’s not a satisfying win. The game shouldn’t have been that close.”
The Rajahs took little time to start their near Cinderella story. Starting on the Arab 29, Indio drove 71 yards to the end zone, almost like clockwork. Sophomore running back Isaac Brown waltzed into the end zone for a four-yard score, giving the small but mighty Indio crowd life.
And it would continue to live on. Although Coachella Valley senior running back Romeo Martinez and junior quarterback Armando Deniz would counter each first half Indio score on the ground with one of their own. The pair of teams would head into the locker room tied 21-21 at halftime, to the surprise and disdain of Arab coach Brett Davis, who nearly lost his voice by game’s end from one too many outbursts following unnecessary Arab penalties.
“They (Indio) came out and played hard, played with a lot more intensity than we’ve seen and didn’t make many mistakes,” he said. “We made every mistake possible to keep them in this game and tried to beat ourselves. When we aren’t our biggest opponent, we’re going to do really well.”
As most would have expected, halftime brought new life to Coachella Valley. A stunned, silent locker room refocused the Arabs, who scooped up an Indio fumble seconds into the half before Martinez scampered in for his third score of the game. He finished with 178 yards on 33 carries.
With the Indio offense suddenly stuck in neutral, Coachella Valley tacked on another score late in the third quarter as Deniz found junior wideout Jovan Ramos on a 24-yard pass to take a 34-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
But again, egos got in the way of the Arabs putting things away for good, Davis said.
“With that two-score lead, I really thought we’d start to roll, but that was the problem; we all thought it, and then we started to coast, and we can’t do that,” he said. “We’ve got to keep the throttle down the whole time. That’s the only way we can play.”
Indio squads of years’ past who lost 41-17, 35-14 and 46-27 the prior three years may have tossed in the towel with a quarter to go, but coach Marty White’s promise of change truly shone through in the fourth quarter.
With a muffed punt by the Arabs to start the final period, the Rajahs recovered, followed quickly by a 29-yard scoring run from David Alvarado to pull Indio back within seven, just under 11 minutes to play.
The Arabs had plenty of chances to put the game away, holding the ball twice on offense in the final six minutes, needing only a few first downs to run out the clock, but penalties in bunches nearly cost them the bell.
“Penalties, muffed punts, multiple chances to put them away, plays that we never mess up, just a whole lot of mental mistakes,” Davis said. “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.”
Well, not quite everything.
With under a minute to go, having completed only three passes all night, the Rajahs nearly got the miracle they needed, as sophomore quarterback Aubuchon Martinez found Isaac Brown on a Hail Mary heave down to the Coachella Valley 10-yard line. With two incomplete passes, the game would come down to one final play.
But Brown, catching a slant across the middle from Martinez, made his best Kevin Dyson impression – outstretched, but not quite far enough.
For one more year, the bell will live in Thermal, but though one team did win, both will return next year unsatisfied.
“It’s been a process, and we have to stay with the process,” White said. “I’ve told these guys all along that you’ve got to fight and good things will happen. We didn’t get the fairy-tale ending, but we fought hard and we can live with the results.
“We’ll make sure they take some positives, but there’s no moral victories.”
And in Hernandez’s eyes, Coachella Valley’s actual victory was hardly one at all. The biggest gift may not have been the bell, but how close they came to losing it.
“This will help a lot,” he said. “Everyone came in thinking ‘3-0’, thinking we can beat everyone, but this shows that 4-0 doesn’t mean anything. It’s only a record. It’s not how hard we played the game.”
COACHELLA VALLEY 34, INDIO 27
Coachella Valley 7 14 13 0 — 34
Indio 14 7 0 6 — 27
(I) Isaac Brown four-yard run, PAT good (8:35)
(CV) Romeo Martinez four-yard run, PAT good (3:38)
(I) Dimitri Long 10-yard run, PAT good (1:48)
(CV) Armando Deniz one-yard run, PAT good (11:18)
(I) David Alvarado 47-yard run, PAT good (8:09)
(CV) Romeo Martinez 10-yard run, PAT good (4:51)
(CV) Romeo Martinez nine-yard run, PAT good (10:07)
(CV) Armando Deniz 24-yard pass to Jovan Ramos, PAT no good (1:24)
(I) David Alvarado 29-yard run, PAT no good (10:48)
Rushing (Carries-Yds-TDs) — CV: Martinez 33-178-3, Deniz 9 – minus 13 – 1, Reyes 1-2-0. I: Alvarado 14-110-2, Long 5-24-1, Brown 10-56-1, Perez 5-18-0, Ceja 4-16-0, Martinez 2 – minus 13 – 0.
Passing (Comp-Att-Yds-TD-INT) —CV: Deniz 19-30-256-1-0. I: Long 0-3-0-0-0, Martinez 5-16-78-0-0.
Receiving (Catches-Yds-TD) —CV: Salazar 1-6-0, Ramos 7-87-1, Martinez 3-72-0, Amador 3-19-0, Rodriguez 3-56-0, Aranda 1-0-0, Sanchez 1-16-0. I: Brown 4-68, Gutierrez 1-10.