Even after committing five turnovers and 11 penalties for 118 yards of backsliding, Bartlett High entertained one final, faint hope of forcing overtime in its season opener Saturday afternoon.
On the 19th play of a drive in which the Golden Bears twice converted on fourth down, and with just six seconds left at Anchorage Football Stadium, they trailed by a touchdown and faced third-and-15 from Wasilla's 37-yard line. Bartlett quarterback Zyrelle Jones scrambled to his right, seemingly out of harm's way, as his receivers flooded downfield.
Then, with a desperate dive and the fingertips of his right hand forging finality, Wasilla's Dakota Hermans put an end to Jones and to the nonconference game.
Wasilla 21, Bartlett 14.
Hermans' game-ending sack proved a fitting finale, given that the Warriors defense responded with big plays on Bartlett's last two drives. Hermans was able to get just enough of Jones' lower leg to trip the quarterback into tumbling to the artificial turf and record his second sack.
"I was scared, trying to help the family,'' Hermans said, referencing the Warriors' mantra of the team as family. "Had to do everything I could for the family. I didn't even know if I got anything of him. I hit the ground and looked up and he was stumbling.
"I guess I got him.''
On Bartlett's previous possession, with Wasilla protecting that 21-14 lead and Bartlett facing fourth-and-10 at the Wasilla 24, Jones appeared to complete a pass to C.J. Hoffman for a first down. But Warriors defensive back Corey Hogan arrived to deliver a ferocious hit that jarred loose the ball for an incompletion that halted the Golden Bears.
Wasilla's defense delivered all day.
Hogan in the second quarter returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown. Cash McGregor picked off a Jones pass at his own goal line in the third quarter. And Chance Morrison, Ben Fielder and Alex Fuller each recovered Bartlett fumbles.
"Kinda like last year, bend not break, and we really showed that,'' McGregor said.
A year after reaching the big-schools playoffs, Wasilla of the Railbelt Conference faced a Bartlett team from the Cook Inlet Conference that has a new head coach in Daniel Esparza and a transformed offense.
For 16 seasons that included two state championships, previous head coach John Jessen ran the wing-T, a run-oriented offense that featured dizzying misdirection and a stable of running backs. Esparza has installed the pass-happy spread offense -- Jones unleashed 40 passes Saturday, which used to be about a season's worth for the Golden Bears.
Jones went 15 for 40 for 176 yards and two touchdowns, and threw two picks. He connected on a 7-yard touchdown pass with Bradley Johnson in the second quarter and his 9-yard hook-up with D'Coursey Reynolds early in the third quarter created a 14-14 tie.
"They definitely picked up the tempo and made us work for it,'' Hermans said.
Bartlett's defense was no slouch. The Golden Bears forced four turnovers and surrendered just two offensive touchdowns.
"I'm very proud of our defense,'' Esparza said. "They just kept getting the ball for the offense.
"Wasilla did a good job of capitalizing on some of our mistakes and we didn't capitalize on theirs, and the one that capitalizes usually wins, especially early in the season.''
Wasilla gained a 14-0 lead on quarterback Ben Fielder's 1-yard run late in the first quarter and Hogan's interception return late in the second quarter. After Jones' two touchdown passes knotted the game at 14-14 early in the third quarter, the Warriors promptly marched 64 yards in 12 plays for what ended up the game-winning touchdown.
Fielder hit McGregor with a 20-yard strike on a fade pattern in which McGregor momentarily slowed, making a defensive back bite on the hesitation. The drive also included a fourth-down conversion on Fielder's 12-yard pass to Mitchell Rilatos, who was by far the most productive running back in the game.
Rilatos rushed 22 times for 128 yards.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Wasilla 7 7 7 0 -- 21
Bartlett 0 6 8 0 -- 14
Wasilla -- Fielder 1 run (Hogan kick), 1:55.
Wasilla -- Hogan 27 interception return (Hogan kick), 2:47.
Bartlett -- Johnson 7 pass from Jones (run failed), 1:11.
Bartlett -- Reynolds 9 pass from Jones (Heckmann run), 9:40.
Wasilla -- McGregor 20 pass from Fielder (Hogan kick), 4:18.
First downs 20 18
Rushes-yards 44-225 39-125
Passing yards 81 176
Return yards 95 12
Passes 7-17-1 15-40-2
Punts 3-25.7 3-28.3
Fumbles-lost 3-3 6-3
Penalties-yards 7-57 11-118
RUSHING -- Wasilla: Rilatos 22-128, Lessard 6-33, Wright 8-29, Fielder 7-26, Morrison 2-9. Bartlett: Heckman 14-68, Jones 14-38, Rowland 1-14, Parker 5-12, Hoffman 1-3, Washington 1-2, Irving 3-(-14).
PASSING -- Wasilla: Fielder 7-17-1--81. Bartlett: Jones 15-40-2--176.
RECEIVING -- Wasilla: Morrison 2-28, McGregor 2-22, Dawkins 2-20, Rilatos 1-11. Bartlett: Irving 5-75, Rowland 3-31, Mahe 2-36, Johnson 2-21, Reynolds 1-9, Heckmann 1-9, Hoffman 1-6.