Before the euphoria, before the Hollywood ending, before the two touchdown drives and the onside kick, the Chiawana defense had to make a play.
To stage a rally as unbelievable as the one the Riverhawks did to win the Class 4A state title 27-26 at the Tacoma Dome on Saturday, they had to execute a series of plays with flawless precision and no timeouts.
“The hard work that we put in paid off in tiny little plays,” offensive lineman Kayden Maughan said. “It was like it was put in one day at a time — you get the pass, you get the kick, you come down and execute and it all works out.”
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Leading 26-13, Camas had a fourth-and-3 from the Chiawana 44 with a little over a minute left in the game.
Jason Vallea ran to the left but was stuffed by Juan Noyola and Dre Dorton. Despite the turnover on downs, there was no panic on the Camas sideline, and why would there be?
The Papermakers had a two-score lead with 1 minute, 5 seconds remaining. The fans were chanting — It’s all o-ver — the media were gathering and the Camas players were preparing to rush the field.
“It was like slow motion,” quarterback Joey Zamora said. “Just never give up. We came all this way not just to give up. We’re going to fight to the end, to the last second.”
That’s when the first of many miracles happened.
Zamora rolled right and threw an absolute strike to Dorton, who caught it at the 10 and raced into the end zone. While Zamora was laid out on the turf from a late hit, the Riverhawks were already preparing for the inevitable onside kick.
Even with the touchdown that pulled Chiawana within 26-20 with 55 seconds left, the outcome still seemed assured — Camas would be winning the first state title in program history.
Sophomore Matt Winn, the backup kicker who took over starting duties when Logan Ellsworth tore his ACL earlier in the season, placed the ball on the tee near midfield.
“I said to (Athletic Director John) Cazier that if we get the onside kick, this place is going to go crazy,” Chiawana coach Steve Graff said. “We had a chance to win and the kids went out and won it.”
With the entire stadium pulsing in anticipation of the onside kick, Winn kicked it to his left, and the ball took one giant hop and hit a Camas player in the face, causing it to soar into the air where wide receiver Deion Singleton climbed the ladder and grabbed it.
“Every practice, we practice our onside kicks,” Winn said. “That is by far my favorite thing to do besides practicing field goals. And we practice it nonstop, to get it perfect. And this is why it counts. This is why it matters.”
Even the best onside kicks don’t always get recovered by the offense, though. That is where Singleton’s athleticism came in. The dynamic defensive back who is being recruited by major colleges throughout the country, would not be denied, grabbing the ball with one hand and cupping it to his body.
“As soon as I saw it bounce, I went up for it,” he said. “I just had to trust myself. I can’t explain it. The coaches kept saying it wasn’t over, it wasn’t over. Anything can happen.”
Even after the Riverhawks recovered, they still had 43 yards to go to and just 51 seconds to get there.
On the first play of the drive, the next miracle happened. Zamora tried to throw a pass to Blake Bishop down the middle. A Camas defender stepped in front of Bishop, but the ball went through his hands and into the Chiawana senior’s gloves. He turned upfield for a 24-yard gain.
It was the first catch of the game for Bishop, who was told by quarterbacks coach Scott Bond on Monday that he would make a huge play in this game. Told to have faith and be ready.
After an incomplete pass, Zamora threw to Isaiah Richie in the corner of the end zone, but the junior was pushed out of bounds. As the Camas fans celebrated, the flag for defensive pass interference came in.
Chiawana now had second-and-2 at the 11, and an incomplete pass followed. Facing third-and-2, Zamora — not known for his scrambling — made a brilliant decision to run up field for a 7-yard gain and a first down.
He quickly got the offense to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball, setting up second-and-goal from the 4 with seven seconds left.
The tension in the stadium was palpable, as the crowd, media, stadium workers, WIAA officials and everyone else surged toward the end zone in anticipation of the final play.
The play call was simple: roll out and hope a receiver gets free.
Zamora took the snap, went right and with two Camas defenders in hot pursuit initially looked for Singleton, who was covered.At that moment, though, Bishop fulfilled Bond’s prophecy and leaked to the back corner of the end zone.
Zamora lofted a pass his way and Bishop grabbed it, causing half the building to go silent while the other half was in bedlam.
“I have no idea who it was going to go to,” Graff said. “They ran their routes, and they just played in the park there at the end and just got it done.”
The game was now tied with no time left, and the biggest moment in Winn’s young life was coming up.
The kicker had already missed one extra point in this game. The snap was a bit high, but Austen Clarke grabbed it, put it down and Winn booted it through the upright, setting off a scene that will live in the minds of the Chiawana players for the rest of their lives.
Afterward, Graff tried to put the game in perspective. One of the winningest coaches in state history, a man with four state titles at two different schools, could hardly explain what he had just seen.
“This is hard on my heart,” he joked, referencing the heart attack he had in October. “You can’t explain it. We just never quit.”
Because of that the Riverhawks not only are state champions, but they will be forever remembered as the team that pulled out the most improbable, incredible, ridiculous, amazing, whatever-you-want-to-call-it comeback.
“There are no words to describe that,” Winn said. “You try to never think it is over, but it was looking pretty bad. When Joey hit that pass to Dorton for the touchdown, I knew we could go back and get it because that is what we do. That’s what we’ve done all season and I was just so excited.”