Centennial Edges Liberty, Reaches Fourth Straight Title Game
November 18, 2017 by Tyler Carlson, AZPreps365
Before the Centennial defense took the field Friday night, leading by five with 2:10 left to play, the players huddled as a unit to hear one resounding, simple message: finish.
With Liberty driving down to the Coyotes' 31-yard line, the clock winding down to under a minute to play and a trip to the 5A championship game on the line, that’s exactly what they did. Defensive end D’angelo Garcia took down Lions quarterback Ryan Bendle attempting to escape the pocket on a 4th-and-11, sealing the 42-37 victory and Centennial’s trip to Tucson.
On a night which featured an offensive battle as the two teams combined for 79 points and 1,003 yards, it seemed almost poetic that a defensive stand would decide the contest.
“Last time that we played, it was very similar to this in that we fumbled the ball on our 20 and they scored on our defense to win,” said Centennial head coach Richard Taylor, referencing the Coyotes' 21-19 loss to Liberty three weeks ago. “Our defense has a lot of pride. They were going to do everything they could to make sure that they weren’t the one’s that felt like they lost the game. They stepped up and played real big.”
Despite the key defensive stop, the night in large part belonged to the Centennial offense, highlighted by the play of running back Zidane Thomas.
Thomas set the tone early for the Coyotes offense, taking the second play from scrimmage 78 yards to the house, putting Centennial up 7-0 just 53 seconds into the contest.
The Coyotes would score again seven minutes later when senior quarterback Ruben Beltran, who collected 132 total yards and two touchdowns on the evening, got in on the action, finding receiver Dyelan Miller downfield for a 34-yard score.
Despite their prolific offensive production however, Centennial would have a difficult time pulling away as the Lions flexed their own offensive prowess, matching the Coyotes blow-by-blow, coming back to tie the game four different times.
Liberty leaned on the contributions of a number of playmakers on the offensive side, including Bendle, who threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns, while running for 125 more and another score. Additionally, running back Jett Kinsch collected 149 total yards and a touchdown on the evening to aid the attack for the Lions.
Ultimately, Thomas and the rest of the Centennial run game would prove to be too much to overcome as the Boise State commit rumbled for 269 yards, including four plays of 25 or more yards and three touchdowns. The senior aided a Centennial run attack that put up 337 yards on the evening, willing the Coyotes to victory.
“(Thomas) is very special,” said Taylor. “There were times tonight when he was running, he looked like a wild man. Last time, he fumbled on the 20 and (Liberty) got the ball and scored and won. I think he desperately wanted to play really well tonight, and he did.”
The Coyotes will now turn their attention to Notre Dame Prep, who upset top-seeded Cienega 37-34 Friday. The Saints boast a strong offense highlighted by a pair of talented running backs in Jake Smith and Cole Fisher, who combined for 3,224 yards of total offense coming into Friday’s action, leading the Notre Dame offense to 426 yards and 43 points per game this season.
The Coyotes, however, who will play in their fourth consecutive state title game, are no strangers to big games against quality teams. Additionally, Centennial will come to Tucson in two weeks with perhaps a little extra motivation as the team looks to avenge a 14-6 defeat at the hands of Williams Field in the 2016 5A championship game.
“Yeah, we want redemption,” said Thomas plainly. “Last year didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but this year will.”