TACOMA — First came the Hail Mary that was answered.
Some 90 minutes later, Montesano’s dreams of an improbable state championship were fulfilled.
Taking a permanent lead on Matthew Jensen’s 42-yard touchdown pass to Richard Smith on the final play of the first half, the Bulldogs went on to capture the state 1A football title with a pulsating 43-28 victory over No. 2 Royal on Saturday at the Tacoma Dome.
The only unranked team to make it to the Gridiron Classic state championship extravaganza, the Bulldogs (12-2) knocked off four state-ranked clubs in the playoffs to cap an 11-game winning streak.
Saturday’s triumph in front of a large Montesano contingent that turned one side of the Tacoma Dome into a veritable sea of maroon proved a fitting climax to an odyssey that included a rare two-game losing streak and a fire that destroyed the Rottle Field grandstand — all within an eight-day span in September.
“It was a fairy-tale season,” Montesano coach Terry Jensen reflected afterward. “If you made a movie out of it, it would probably be pretty hokey.”
“I don’t know if I have the words to describe it. But if I had to try, I’d say it was magical,” said senior running back Tucker Ibabao. “Our town believed in us, but nobody else did. We proved the whole state wrong and that was our goal from Day One.”
Averaging more than 50 points per game entering the contest, second-ranked Royal (13-1) racked up more than 400 yards of total offense in a turnover-free game. But the well-balanced Bulldogs trumped that by netting 547 — only 21 yards shy of the state 1A championship game record.
Senior quarterback Matthew Jensen authored a spectacular conclusion to his prep career by completing 15 of 20 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns. Receivers Smith, Ben Ohashi and Shad Rogers combined for 13 of the receptions.
“I’m a little biased, but he’s played Billy Green (the record-setting King’s quarterback) twice and now (multi-talented Royal signal-caller Alex Myrick) and every time he’s been the outstanding quarterback on the field,” Coach Jensen said of his son. “He was today.”
Elliot Mendenhall broke scoring runs of 41 and 82 yards while finishing with 172 yards on 13 carries. Ibabao added 84 yards rushing on 11 carries, including a 43-yard burst for the game’s final TD.
After experiencing difficulty containing the Knights early, Monte’s undersized line also performed yeoman service as the game progressed — most notably in a critical goal-line stand in the third quarter.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to determine the game’s turning point.
Up 21-10 early in the second quarter, Royal owned a 21-15 lead and had possession near midfield as time was running out in the first half.
The Knight opted to go for the first down on fourth-and-two, but Matt Jensen sacked Myrick for a 2-yard loss.
That left the Bulldogs with three seconds on the clock and the ball on the Royal 42-yard line.
Rolling to his right, Jensen launched a howitzer into the end zone. A step or two behind the secondary, Smith backpedaled and came down with the ball in the back corner.
“We practice (Hail Marys) every Thursday, it doesn’t always look pretty,” Terry Jensen said. “Usually, there’s a tip involved.”
Smith, in fact, said his initial expectation was to try to tip the pass to a teammate.
“My first goal was to tip it,” the senior receiver said, “but I was in good position, so I caught it. Matt made a good throw to the back of the end zone.”
A conversion pass failed, but the Bulldogs nevertheless took a 22-21 lead into the locker room. They never relinquished the momentum.
After forcing the Knights into their lone punt of the day (Monte also punted only once), the Dogs promptly extended the lead with an 80-yard drive on their opening possession of the third quarter. Ibabao finished it off with a 4-yard TD run off the left side, one play after Jensen’s 26-yard pass to Smith.
Anthony Louthan’s PAT made it 29-21 with 8:06 remaining in the third quarter.
Then came arguably the game’s second-biggest sequence.
Sparked by Myrick’s 40-yard run on a keeper, the Knights motored deep into Monte territory, where they faced fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line.
Myrick went straight ahead on a strange play in which the Knights seemed to be clearly guilty of a false start. The Royal quarterback also appeared, at least from a press box angle, to have crossed the goal line. Neither the penalty nor the TD was called, however, and officials ruled the Bulldogs had held on about the one-foot line.
Mendenhall dug the Bulldogs out of the hole with a 16-yard run for a first down. On the next play, the senior running back took an option pitch from Jensen and exploded down the sideline on an 82-yard scoring run that, with Louthan’s conversion, increased the margin to 15.
Royal answered on its next possession when running back Damien Dela Rosa (who rushed for 158 yards) scored on a 2-yard run with 40 seconds left in the third period.
The Bulldogs quickly fired back with an 88-yard drive. After Jensen completed four of five passes to reach Knight territory, Ibabao burst over right tackle and tumbled into the end zone on a 43-yard run at the 9:26 mark of the final stanza. Louthan tacked on the PAT.
Under pressure from Mendenhall, Myrick threw incomplete on a fourth-down pass from the Montesano 22 to end Royal’s last legitimate hope.
The Knights never saw the ball again, as Montesano maintained possession for the final 6:59 before players, cheerleaders and even a few students stormed the field in celebration.
The opening 15 minutes had the earmarks of a Royal coronation.
With Myrick completing his first five passes and their triple-option ground game working nicely, the Knights scored on their first three possessions. Myrick hooked up with Brady Dixon on TD passes of 39 and 14 yards (the first on a fake field goal), sandwiched around a 10-yard TD pass to Kent Christensen.
But Montesano, while unable to establish its normally formidable running game early, found the Knights vulnerable to both deep and seam-route passes. The latter type was nearly automatic as the game progressed.
“We knew they were a man coverage team that would focus on stopping the run,” Matthew Jensen explained. “We knew we could burn them on a couple of play-action passes and the deep balls.”
Sophomore kicker Louthan opened the scoring with a 41-yard field goal that had plenty of carry.
Ohashi, who had set up that score by returning the opening kickoff 59 yards to the Royal 28, subsequently found the end zone when he shook loose to accept Jensen’s 64-yard TD strike with 3:28 remaining in the first quarter.
With Royal leading 21-10 midway through the second quarter, the tide began to turn in Monte’s direction when Drew Helms blocked Christian Guerrero’s 26-yard field goal attempt.
Six plays later, Mendenhall raced 41 yards on a counter play to narrow the deficit to five with 3:57 remaining in the first half.
This was Montesano’s third state football title, the others coming in 1983 and (also at the expense of Royal) 1994. The Knights were seeking their sixth state championship since 1996.
The state 1A academic football championship, incidentally, was awarded at halftime of Saturday’s game. The Bulldogs won that one as well.
On the field or in the classroom, Montesano was tough to beat this season.
ROY 14 7 7 0 — 28 MONTE 10 12 14 7 — 43
First Downs 17 19
Net Rushing 299 297
Net Passing 102 268
Total Net Yardage 401 547
Passing 9-15 15-20
Had Intercepted 0 0
Fumbles Lost 0 0
Yards Penalized 25 54