MIDDLETON — Maybe the fans couldn’t see, or maybe they were in disbelief. Maybe Homedale tied things, or maybe Sugar-Salem just won state.
The only thing for certain on the final play of Sugar-Salem’s 34-28 overtime win over Homedale Saturday afternoon was that nothing was for certain.
“I just fell down and just started crying," Cooper Porter said.
Sugar-Salem scored on its overtime possession, so on fourth down on its series, Homedale needed a touchdown to stay alive. Trojan quarterback Jaxon Dines dropped back. He unfurled a pass to the corner, in the direction of Keagen Christensen, who leapt up. He snagged it.
Then Sugar-Salem Porter leapt into frame. He shoved his helmet into Christensen’s gut. The ball came loose. Incomplete.
That’s how Sugar-Salem secured its third straight 3A state championship, feeling devastated then elated, watching Porter break up what looked like a touchdown and feeling the avalanche of emotion cascade as the confusion lifted.
Kyzon Garner, Sugar-Salem’s senior quarterback who took over this season as some doubted his ability to lead the Diggers back here, hugged head coach Tyler Richins. They jumped up and down with each other. Garner rushed onto the field with the happiest bunch in Middleton.
It meant something special to Garner, who completed 10 of 15 passes for 139 yards and two total touchdowns. At one point, midway through the fourth quarter as his Diggers trailed by seven, Garner fumbled.
I just lost the game for us, Garner thought.
Instead, Garner led Sugar-Salem to its third straight state championship, flattening the idea that he couldn’t replicate the success of his predecessor, Tanner Harris.
“It means everything to me,” Garner said. “People told us this year about how this is going to be our rebuilding year, how Sugar’s going to go down from here. I think we’re just out here to prove something.
“I just wanted to prove that I was good enough to start and get it done. It’s amazing to me, how far our team has come. We went from, in sixth grade, barely winning one game to winning state senior year. It’s amazing.”
Even so, during the game, there were times — several of them — when Garner and the Diggers felt the beckon of unfulfilled dreams.
But to hear the Diggers tell it, Jonah Schulthies’ 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown represented something bigger than itself.
“Jonah Schulthies and that huge kick return,” Clark said. “As soon as that happened, man, that gave us a spark. We just took over from there.”
The rally began midway through the third quarter. The Diggers pieced together a 68-yard touchdown drive, capped by a short quarterback sneak from Garner. Sugar-Salem drew within 20-14.
On Homedale’s first play on the ensuing drive, Dines felt pressure and scampered back into the end zone, where Diggers swarmed him and he coughed up the ball. Sugar-Salem’s Spencer Blaser fell on it. Touchdown. Sugar-Salem led.
The Diggers were up, 21-20, with 6:04 in the third.
“The two D-ends and the tackle all came crashing on him,” Blaser said of the play. “Someone swung and hit his arm. I came down with the fumble and the touchdown.”
Things hardly calmed down from there. On Homedale’s next drive, Kincheloe punctuated a long drive with a four-yard touchdown rush, handing the Trojans a 28-21 lead with 10:20 to play.
It almost turned even more grisly for Sugar-Salem on its next series. The Diggers had produced a sterling drive, advancing all the way to the Trojans’ 22. Then Garner fumbled.
Fortunately for Sugar-Salem, two plays later, Clark picked off Dines, breathing new life into the Diggers’ chances. Moments later, on fourth down, Garner hit Clark for seven yards and a touchdown, tying the game at 28-all with 3:25 left.
“Our team’s too good to do that,” Clark said. “You can’t have mistakes against the Diggers. If you do, you’re going to pay for it.”
Homedale took over. It couldn’t take the lead. On fourth down, Sugar-Salem’s Logan Cutler dragged down Dines in the backfield, forcing a turnover on downs and handing his offense the ball with 42 seconds to play.
Sugar-Salem, though, couldn’t win the game either. The Diggers drove down to the Trojans’ 45, where Clark attempted a game-winning field goal, but the ball fell short.
Then, to a state title.
“It’s just not in the character of these kids to roll over,” Sugar-Salem coach Tyler Richins said. “The starters, the second-string guys, the scout team guys, everybody — it’s just not in our culture to quit and give up.”
SUGAR-SALEM 34, HOMEDALE 28
H — Heck 14 pass from Dines (Neri kick), 6:36
H — Dines 2 rush (Neri kick), 9:42
H — Strong 35 pass from Dines (Neri kick no good), 2:22
S — Schulties 82 kickoff return (Clark kick), 2:10
S — Garner 1 rush (Clark kick), 6:16
S — Blaser fumble recovery (Clark kick), 6:04
H — Kincheloe 4 rush (2-pt good), 10:20
S — Clark 7 pass from Garner (Clark kick), 3:25
S — Clark 10 rush (Clark kick)
RUSHING — Homedale: Kincheloe 39-202, Dines 16-75. Sugar-Salem: Clark 6-17, Lee 3-14, Garner 8-11, Harris 2-14, Cutler 4-10.
PASSING — Homedale: Dines 10-16-1 179. Sugar-Salem: Garner 10-15-0 139.
RECEIVING — Homedale: Symms 3-62, Strong 5-96, Heck 2-21. Sugar-Salem: Clark 3-41, Lee 4-46, Butikofer 1-21, Schulties 2-31.