Four times the Southridge football team had chances to score in the waning moments Friday, and four times Walla Walla’s defense held.
On the final attempt, Masceo Ealy-Thomas caught a pass but was ruled out of bounds setting off a wild celebration by the Blue Devils, who beat the Suns 26-21 at Lampson Stadium in Kennewick.
“Our DBs held the coverage and our line did a great job of forcing the quarterback to scramble,” Walla Walla’s Darnell Handcox said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. The last winning team was in middle school and it’s so fun to be on a winning team.”
The victory moves the Blue Devils into a tie for second with Richland in the Mid-Columbia Conference and gives them their first five-game winning streak since 2002.
It’s quite the turnaround for the Walla Walla program, which went winless in 2011.
“It’s a great senior class,” said Walla Walla coach Eric Hisaw, who beat Southridge for the first time in his career. “They’ve done a great job of leading this program. It’s faith in each other and faith in the coaches and it is all paying off. They can see the dividends.”
Handcox made two dynamic plays to give the Blue Devils a 26-14 lead late in the third quarter and the defense made it stand up.
Trailing 14-13, Handcox made a beautiful over-the-shoulder grab on a 33-yard pass from quarterback Zach Zehner.
“On the play-action, I try to sell the block,” Handcox said of getting a step on the defender. “Zehner made a great throw.”
After the kickoff, Handcox showed off his defensive skills, interception a Jair Ealy-Thomas pass and returning it 61 yards for a touchdown and a 26-14 lead with 5:14 left in the third quarter.
“I read the quarterback’s eyes,” Handcox said. “A defensive coach told me the quarterback was looking at the wide receivers. I got a great block by Gerardo Gomez on the quarterback to spring me.”
Southridge battled back, though, going on a 12-play, 65-yard drive to get back into the game.
The Ealy-Thomas brothers moved the ball down the field, connection for a 20-yard pass play and Kadin Diaz capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown.
The teams exchanged possessions back and forth, including interceptions by Southridge’s Bryce Overholt and Walla Walla’s Reid Magnaghi.
The Suns defense forced a punt with 3:49 left in the game, setting up their final drive.
Masceo Ealy-Thomas had runs of 13, 8 and 21 to move Southridge down to the 15 with a minute to go.
But Walla Walla’s defense held.
Ealy Thomas gained a yard on first down, his brother threw an incomplete pass on second down, then hit Overholt for 5 yards on third down, before the final throw was caught out of bounds.
“That’s how these kids have been this year,” Hisaw said. “They do a lot of bending, but they don’t break. There is a lot of will in these kids. That was a huge stand tonight.”
Walla Walla came in hoping to force the Suns to beat them with the pass, keying in on Diaz.
It burned them on Southridge’s first play, as the Suns executed a perfect play-action pass, as Ealy-Thomas connected with Brenden Kelly on a 70-yard touchdown.
Walla Walla pulled within 7-6 on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Zehner to Mitch Huffman on fourth-and-13.
Walla Walla took the lead on a 9-yard run by Zehner, getting the ball back after Stuart Gillin blocked a punt.
Southridge went ahead 14-13 on its first possession of the second half as Diaz scored on a 13-yard run.
Zehner finished 19-of-33 for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Handcox had five receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown, while Magnaghi had 81 yards on six receptions.
Diaz finished with 101 yards on 20 carries, while Masceo Ealy-Thomas had 85 yards on 17 touches. Jair Ealy-Thomas was 9-of-24 for 145 yards and four interceptions.
Walla Walla 6 7 13 0 — 26
Southridge 7 0 14 0 — 21
Southridge—Brenden Kelly 70 pass from Jair Ealy-Thomas (Nate Newbry kick), 10:18
Walla Walla—Mitchell Huffman 27 pass from Zach Zehner (kick failed), 1:20
WW—Zehner 9 run (Ethan Gardner kick), 4:58
Southridge—Kadin Diaz 13 run (Newbry kick), 9:27
WW—Darnell Handcox 33 pass from Zehner (Gardner kick), 5:35
WW—Handcox 61 interception return (kick failed), 5:14
Southridge—Diaz 3 run (Newbry kick), 1:06
RUSHING—Walla Walla, Zehner 9-27, Willie Hayes 8-9, Stuart Gillin 5-2. Southridge, Diaz 20-101, Masceo Ealy-Thomas 17-85, J. Ealy-Thomas 1-(-11).
PASSING—Walla Walla, Zehner 19-33-1—220. Southridge, Jair Ealy-Thomas 9-24-4—145.
RECEIVING—Walla Walla, Reid Magnaghi 6-81, Handcox 5-59, Gillin 5-24, Huffman 3-54. Southridge, Kelly 4-100, M. Ealy-Thomas 2-21, Conner Grigg 1-17, Jake Bauman 1-9, Overholt 1-5.
INTERCEPTIONS-YARDS—Walla Walla, Trever Coronado 1-0, Handcox 1-61, Huffman 1-(-3), Magnaghi 1-4. Southridge, Bryce Overholt 1-10.
SACKS-YARDS—Walla Walla, Hayes 1-11. Southridge, Kellen Hietala 1-5, Overholt 1-13.
KICKOFF RETURNS-YARDS—Walla Walla, Handcox 2-34, Magnaghi 1-13. Southridge, Diaz 2-45, M. Ealy-Thomas 2-76, Clay Gonzales 1-20.
PUNT RETURNS-YARDS—Southridge, Gonzales 1-5, Andrew Stayrook 1-2.
FIRST DOWNS—WW 11, S 17. FUMBLES-LOST—WW 0-0, S 0-0. PENALTIES-YARDS—WW 8-73, S 9-80. PUNTS-AVG—WW 6-32.3, S 2-15.0