Palm Desert High School finished 12-1 in 2005. The Aztecs reached a CIF Southern Section title game two years later, and had, for a period of time, the top football program in the Coachella Valley, reaching the quarterfinals of the postseason seven consecutive years.
But although Palm Desert has reached the postseason every year since, the Aztecs had been bounced from the playoffs in the first round six consecutive years until earlier this month.
And even after Friday’s 47-34 season-ending loss to Serrano High in the Eastern Division semifinals, there was one resounding message Palm Desert head coach Pat Blackburn had for his team.
“They brought us back,” Blackburn said. “They brought Palm Desert football back. They brought back what we used to be.
This team will have a huge legacy.”
Palm Desert had a list of accomplishments at the start of the season, and began checking off a few of them as the season progressed. Beat rival La Quinta: check. Reach the postseason again: check. Win a playoff game for the first time in seven years: check. Reach the CIF semifinals for the first time in eight years: check.
The last goal left to accomplish was to reach the CIF final and win it. The Aztecs fell just short of that one, in large part because of Serrano tailback Sultaan Sullivan, and Palm Desert’s inability to stop the big play throughout the night. Sullivan was the Serrano offense, carrying the ball a 44 times for nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns.
The Aztecs looked tremendous on offense, with senior running back Beau Berryhill running for 225 yards, and quarterback Brian Devlin passing for two scores and running for two. The 34 points were the second-most points Serrano allowed all season.
Defensively, the Aztecs held Sullivan in check for all but his five touchdown runs. He averaged just four yards per carry on his other 39 rushes. But each time the Aztecs inches closer in the second half, cutting a 14-point lead to seven on two separate occasions, the defense gave up a big play. Twice the big play came on a long pass, catching the stacked defense anticipating the run off guard, that kept Serrano drives alive.
Perhaps the biggest setback for the Aztecs came in the third quarter in a reverse. With the Palm Desert defense slowing Sullivan, the Diamondbacks hit them with a reverse to Andrew Valencia for a gain of 24.
It was the same play, to the same player, Serrano ran against Palm Springs in the division title game last season. Palm Springs, however, saw it coming and stuffed it for the biggest defensive play of the game. Palm Desert was not so fortunate. Demoralized, the Aztecs gave up a 22-yard touchdown to Sullivan on the following play.
“We had a chance to tie the game, but they came up with big plays on third down,” Blackburn said. “That killed us.”
With Berryhill and Devlin, Palm Desert continually fought its way back into the game. Devlin found Tristan Sinkinson for a second time with nine minutes remaining to bring the deficit within seven, but that would be the closest Palm Desert would come. Serrano scored again and the Aztecs had less than five minutes to score two touchdowns.
In the end, the team that brought Palm Desert back fell just short of their biggest goal. Tears were shed among players. Hugs were given among teammates and coaches. Even Blackburn, normally immune to these kind of postgame emotions, was saddened by the demise of a team that he refers to as “special.”
That’s what those who were a part of it will remember years from now.
“It’s really hard to be upset about this,” senior Tommy Jacobsson said. “It’s sad because you never know where life is going to take you from here, but we became brothers over the last few years and what we accomplished together it something we’re never going to forget.”