Corbin Christensen played a less than stellar first half Friday night when his Royal High School Knights visited the Connell Eagles, and at halftime he felt responsible for the game starting to slip away from his team.
“I had my head down,” the junior wide receiver/defensive back said. “I was frustrated, and I didn’t know what to do. But luckily I had teammates to rally around me, and it was all smiles from there.”
Christensen would more than redeem himself for a handful of first half drops and a blown coverage that resulted in a touchdown, as he caught two fourth quarter touchdown passes and made a game-sealing interception in the Knight’s end zone — his second pick of the game — to lead No. 1 Royal (7-0, 5-0 SCAC East) to a 28-21 nail-biter of a victory over No. 2 Connell (6-1, 4-1).
Connell running back Jaxs Whitby was mostly shut down by the Royal defense — 14 carries for 33 yards and a touchdown — but he made a nearly game-changing defensive play in the fourth quarter when he dove and intercepted a tipped pass at the Knights’ 32-yard line to give the Eagles a heart beat, trailing 28-21 with 3 minutes remaining. Quarterback Brian Hawkins moved the Eagle offense to the Royal 5-yard line, and found an open receiver on the goal line. But the pass sailed on him and went right into the waiting arms of Christensen 2 yards deep in the end zone.
“I had a receiver, and I had an assignment, and, honestly, I left him,” Christensen said. “Luckily the ball was overthrown and I was in the right spot at the right time. So I got it, and it was kind of just a blur from there.”
Had Connell won, the story of the game would have been its ability to respond every time Royal scored, as all three of the Eagles’ touchdowns were on drives that immediately followed a score by the Knights.
When Royal quarterback Kaden Jenks opened the scoring with a 25-yard pass to Juan Ojeda midway through the second quarter, Hawkins answered with a 44-yard touchdown strike to Caleb Price. When Jenks punched in a 1-yard run coming out of halftime on his third try, Whitby answered with a 3-yard touchdown scamper of his own. And when Jenks connected with Christensen for a 65-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, Connell tight end Steven Kroontje manhandled the Royal defense for a 9-yard touchdown grab to pull the Eagles back within a score.
But instead, the story was the redemption of Christensen, and of Jenks as he rallied back from an 0-for-8 passing start to throw for 225 yards and three touchdowns with a rushing score. Royal coach Wiley Allred shouldered some of the blame for the all-state quarterback stumbling out of the gates.
“I thought we got a little bit long-ball happy, and that’s partly me and partly Kaden,” Allred said. “That was not what was in the game plan. But sometimes he took that, sometimes we dropped it.”
Royal’s only unanswered score came on the first of two touchdown connections between Jenks and Christensen, a 37-yard strike early in the fourth quarter that Jenks dropped perfectly on the outside shoulder of his receiver, who had a defensive back in his hip pocket. The touchdown not only gave Royal a 21-14 lead after trailing 14-13, it also got its star receiver — who has caught eight touchdowns in the past three weeks — back into the game.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster once you get a touchdown, there’s no doubt about that,” Christensen said. “So once I got that, I just played my hardest, and you hope good comes out of that.”
Last season, Royal beat Connell 27-20 in the regular season, and the Knights stomped the Eagles 47-7 in the Class 1A state semifinal game. Assuming the two teams earn the SCAC East’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds heading into the state tournament, they could meet up in the state championship game.
But the prospect of a rematch in December is too far down the road for Connell coach Wayne Riner and the Eagles to think about.
“We just take them one game at a time, that’s a long ways away,” Riner said. “Hopefully we’ll take care of business, and that’s the case. But I’m not looking that far ahead.”
For Allred, he was happy his team got pushed to the limit for the first time since a season-opening 21-14 victory over Class 2A powerhouse Ellensburg.
“Obviously we’re excited and happy, but honestly, sure they had a lot to do with it, but we made a lot of mistakes we haven’t made all year,” Allred said. “Obviously if we meet them again, it will be in the finals, and that would be great. We’re two great teams right next to each other.”
Connell will visit College Place (1-6, 0-5) next week in its second-to-last game of the season while Royal will host Columbia-Burbank (3-4, 3-2). The Knights only need to win one of their final two games, or have the Eagles lose one of theirs, to claim the SCAC East championship.
R — Juan Ojeda 25 pass from Kaden Jenks (Alonzo Hernandez kick)
C — Caleb Price 44 pass from Brian Hawkins (Luis Ramos kick)
R — Jenks 1 run (kick failed)
C — Jaxs Whitby 3 run (Ramos kick)
R — Corbin Christensen 37 pass from Jenks (Jenks run)
R — Christensen 65 pass from Jenks (Hernandez kick)
C — Steven Kroontje 9 pass from Hawkins (Ramos kick)
RUSHING — R, Jenks 12-66; Danny Cuevas 9-17; team 2-(minus 4). C, Hawkins 17-98; Jarrod Tuttle 3-37; Whitby 14-33.
PASSING — R, Jenks 8-20-1-225. C, Hawkins 20-32-2-234.
RECEIVING — R, Christensen 3-114; Juan Niebla 3-78; Juan Ojeda 1-25; Adrian Trinidad 1-8. C, Price 5-97; Kroontje 7-72; Whitby 4-43; Tristen Garland 4-22.