La Quinta principal Rebecca Cook held onto the Victory Flag for dear life, as the final seconds ticked off the Blackhawks’ scoreboard. Behind her, blank stares shone from the Birdcage, as a cheerleader fought back tears.
There would be no last-second theatrics this time, no late onside kicks, no Hail Marys. Palm Desert quarterback Brian Devlin lined his team up in the victory formation. How fitting.
Victory formation. Victory Flag. Victory, 27-20.
Reluctantly, Cook and La Quinta coach Dan Armstrong escorted the Victory Flag to midfield, where Palm Desert head coach Pat Blackburn was waiting. It only took about nine seconds to reach Armstrong, but it sure felt like nine years.
“A lot of frustration, a lot of close losses, and we finally got over the hump,” Blackburn said. “I’m honored, but these guys did it.”
But senior running back Beau Berryhill disagrees. Heck, he and the rest of his senior class was in second grade the last time the Aztecs took home the flag. This one was most importantly for their beloved coach, who had to suffer through nine years of disappointment.
“Blackburn puts his heart and soul into this team,” Berryhill said. “He wanted this 10 times more than we wanted it, and that’s saying a lot, cause I really, REALLY wanted it. I’m just so happy I got it for him…We needed it, and we did it.”
Berryhill may have played the biggest part in taking his coach to the promised land, rushing for 123 yards on 22 carries for two touchdowns. He also made a crucial interception towards the end of the third quarter to stop a driving Blackhawks team in search of some momentum.
But almost from the start of the game, it was all Aztecs. The Blackhawks, with junior quarterback Andrew Garica under center to replace injured starter Michael Avina, stalled each of their first three possessions, even after Aztec quarterback Brian Devlin fumbled on his team’s first play of the game.
After a 37-yard Tommy Jacobsson field goal, Berryhill strengthened his team’s lead with a 54-yard tear through the center of the La Quinta defense to cap the first quarter with a 10-0 lead.
But Garcia would soon find his security blanket in junior wideout Justin Anderson, who caught 10 balls for 206 yards and three scores Friday. Those two, with runs sprinkled in from junior running back Andres Sanchez, ate up time with a long drive during much of the second quarter, ending with a 10-yard pass to Anderson in the end zone.
Devlin countered with a 28-yard score to Dakota Romero, but Garcia had a chance to pull his team within a single socre.
Instead, with less than two minutes left, he threw an interception, caught by Romero and returned inside the red zone. Berryhill ran it in from five yards out, and took a 24-7 lead into the locker room.
But second halves had been the demise of the Aztecs this season, falling apart against Norte Vista and Redlands. Each Aztec practice this week represented a quarter. Four quarters, two halves, that was the mantra.
And it almost wasn’t enough.
Midway through the third period, Garcia connected with Anderson, who cleared the back of the Aztec secondary and waltzed in for a 55-yard score.
After both teams traded mistakes, Garcia found himself again in a bind, but found Anderson on a must-have 4th and 10 deep in his own territory for a 73-yard touchdown with less than five minutes to go.
This Aztec team, though, was different. Each of the 21 senior starters had worked much too hard to be another punchline in the rivalry.
Aztec alum James Dockery had a chance to take in the scene from the sidelines, watching Palm Desert take the flag home for the first time since his late-game heroics in 2005.
“I’m just so happy for the kids I know how it feels twice and they were the best nights of my life in high school so I’m excited for the night for these guys,” he said.
It’ll certainly be one to remember.
“We kept it up, we stayed with it the whole game, and I knew we would win,” Berryhill said. “It was nine years, but there was no way we’d let it be 10.”
PALM DESERT 27, LA QUINTA 20
(PD): Tommy Jacobsson 37-yard field goal
(PD): Beau Berryhill 54-yard run (PAT good)
(LQ): Andrew Garcia 10-yard pass to Justin Anderson (PAT good)
(PD): Brian Devlin 28-yard pass to Dakota Romero (PAT good)
(PD): Beau Berryhill 5-yard run (PAT good)
(LQ): Andrew Garcia 55-yard pass to Justin Anderson (PAT good)
(PD): Tommy Jacobsson 48-yard field goal
(LQ): Andrew Garcia 73-yard pass to Justin Anderson (PAT missed)
RUSHING (Carries-Yds-TD) — PD: Berryhill 22-123-2, Devlin 8-58. LQ: Cordova 5-(minus 1)-0, Sanchez 14-58-0, Kennedy 4-(minus 7)-0, Garcia 3-14-0, Anderson 1-13-0, Mello 1-1-0.
PASSING (Comp.-Att- INT—TD- Yds) — PD: Devlin 7-15-0-1-123. LQ: Garcia 14-28-2-3-244.
RECEIVING (Rec.-Yds-TD) — PD: Jacobsson 4-91-0, Romero 2-31-1, Stephenson 1-1-0. LQ: Anderson 10-206-3, Kasten 1-6-0, Cabrera 2-21-0, Mello 1-9.