It’s taken 14 years for Scooter Molander to get back to a state championship football game. He can thank his son for helping him get there, and making history for the young Mesa Eastmark High School.
Mack Molander threw two touchdowns passes, both to favorite target Austin Johnston, and ran for a score in a 45-10 3A semifinal rout of Tucson Pusch Ridge on Saturday afternoon at Phoenix Mountain Pointe.
Official ended the game with 2:39 to play because of an injury on the field that required paramedics and an ambulance. Eastmark junior defensive lineman Israel Krize collided with a Pusch Ridge ball carrier and lay on the field. He appeared to have movement with his feet and hands. Out of precaution, Krize was strapped to a board and carried into an ambulance to be taken to a hospital.
It cast a pall on Eastmark’s historic win, as players stood by watching paramedics work on Krize. Players from both teams prayed for Krize.
Second-seed Eastmark (13-1) advances to play either No. 1 Thatcher or No. 4 Show Low in next Saturday’s championship game at 6 p.m., at Phoenix Desert Vista High School.
This is the first time Scooter Molander will be coaching in a state football final since leading Phoenix Brophy Prep to the largest-conference championship game in 2008, a 17-10 loss to Chandler Hamilton. Molander’s last state championship win came with Brophy in 2007 against Desert Vista.
“It’s a great feeling,” Molander said. “I’m so happy for our players, our community, our coaches, our adminuistrators.”
Here are three takeaways from Eastmark’s dominant performance:
Dynamic duo dialing up plays
Mack Molander and Johnston are one of the state’s most dynamic duos at any level in the state. And they showed why Saturday. Molander, a capable runner, hit Johnston with a 30-yard pass in the end zone on play action for a score with 1:12 left in the first half to extend the Firebirds’ lead to 21-10.
Early in the final quarter, Molander waited for Johnston to fly by his man and he hit him along the sideline for 54-yard touchdown and a 31-10 lead. Pusch Ridge (11-2) never recovered from that.
“He looked at me and if I was open he was going to throw it,” said Johnston, who scored the game’s first touchdown a 4-yard run and also had an interception that led to Eastmark’s final score. “I was open and he threw it and I caught it and scored a touchdown.”
Pusch Ridge’s critical decision at end of half
Pusch Ridge could have gone into halftime down 21-13 had it tried a short field goal. But out of timeouts at the Eastmark 4 with eight seconds left, the Lions gave quarterback Bubba Mustain a chance to try to get into the end zone.
Mustain, unable to find an open receiver, tried to find a sliver but he was bottled up at the line of scrimmage and the time expired. Pusch Ridge received the ball in the second half but was stopped.
Eastmark’s defense coming up big
Mustain had success moving the offense in the first against Eastmark. He drove the Lions to the Eastmark 8 in their first possession of the game, before settling on Isaiah Peyton’s 30-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Brysen Barrios found a gap for a 22-yard gain, before Mustain ran 15 yards for a score to cut Eastmark’s lead to 14-10 with about eight minutes left in the half.
In the second half, Eastmark’s defense took over. And turnovers took a toll. Pusch Ridge lost a punt that Eastmark recovered. That ended up in a touchdown. And Johnston, who plays both ways, returned an interception 35 yards to the 3 in the final four minutes.
Pusch Ridge never threatened to score in the second half. Defensive end Ramar Williams, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior, dominated the line of scrimmage for the Firebirds.
“When Pusch Ridge got a little momentum, out defense stepped up big time,” Scooter Molander said. “Our kickoff team was excellent. We were able to pin them inside the 20 and inside the 30. They are extremely well-coached.
“When we needed to make a play, we did.”