Chiefs "Shake, Rattle and Roll" into quarterfinals
ALMA -- "Elvis has left the building."
The public address announcer's pronouncement concluding the Santa Fe band's halftime performance, a medley of "The King's" hits, rang hollow.
"Left the building?" Elvis had yet to arrive.
Instead, the host Chiefs looked afraid that somebody would step on their "Blue Suede Shoes" and Polo was playing like a junkyard "Hound Dog" during the first half of Wednesday's MSHSAA Class 1 Quarterfinal football clash at Alma. However, before it was over, Santa Fe would rally from a 15-point deficit and evict the Panthers from "Heartbreak Hotel" with four unanswered touchdowns for a 37-23 victory.
"It wasn't very pretty, but we focused on the win at the end," said Chiefs head coach Jarrod Borland. "Our guys did what they have done all year: step it up in the second half."
It's a good thing, too, because Polo was playing on the higher intensity plane early in the game -- even though Santa Fe broke through first. After an interception by senior Andrew Thomas of Polo, it was "Return to Sender" with Santa Fe junior Clay Michael recovering a fumble at the Panthers' 13-yard line and later hauling in a five-yard pass from junior Zach Brown.
However, Polo struck quickly on back-to-back snaps -- Thomas hooking up with senior T.J. White on a 22-yard fade and 74-yard drag for touchdowns. The Chiefs' offense was stalled, punting on three straight possessions.
"We were a little flat coming in and they played a lot better than they looked on tape," Borland admitted. "We were able to keep it close and come back to win."
The gap got wider before it became closer, though. Thomas reeled off runs of 39 and 19 yards to set up his one-yard sneak to make it 23-8 with 3:30 left in the half.
Then the Chiefs got to work, putting together a nine-play, 75-yard drive -- the most crucial being Brown's 43-yard "flea flicker" pass to junior Cody Smith at the end of a handoff to junior Adam Eastin, reverse to senior Brandon "Viva Las" Vega and toss back to Smith in the pocket.
Eastin caught a 27-yard pass with defenders draped all over him, the series capped by junior Dusty Wood's one-yard plunge with 14 seconds to go.
The Panthers were "All Shook Up," which would be evident when they opened the second half with two delay of game penalties, an illegal procedure miscue and a dropped snap with was corralled by Chiefs junior Tony Fitzwater at the Polo 5 -- leading to another Wood one-yard TD dive to close within a point.
"We used that as a momentum builder," Borland noted about Santa Fe's second-quarter drive. "It showed in the second half. They gave it to us right off the bat."
The Chiefs' defense no longer was giving up big gains to Polo, which failed to record a first down -- netting minus-24 yards -- during its first five series after the break. The Panthers' D was clinging tighter than a "Hard-Headed Woman," but Santa Fe finally pulled ahead when -- after a 34-yard Vega sprint -- Eastin shook an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage and rambled 19 yards to score in the first minute of the final frame.
Brown bootlegs of 15 and 16 yards set up an insurance touchdown, Eastin covering the last eight yards on a toss-sweep with 5:47 remaining.
"We finally figures out they were slanting and went to blocking 'base,' which opened up those holes," Borland explained. Eastin, rushing for 91 yards and four critical first downs, "ran hard, like he has all season, not letting the first man bring him down."
Polo knew "It's Now or Never" and mounted a threat, a pass interference call and junior Shannon Hobbs' 16-yard catch taking the ball to the Chiefs' 14. But four straight incompletions, the last two knocked down by the Owen brothers, junior Billy and sophomore Ben, gave possession back to Santa Fe with 3:20 to go.
Vega lost a fumble, but then intercepted a pass at his own 3-yard line with 1:04 left to secure the win.
It was the third straight playoff loss to the Chiefs by Polo (6-5), which got 196 combined passing and running yards from Thomas.
Santa Fe (8-3) reached the quarterfinals for the ninth year in a row, heading to Cleveland Monday to face Cass-Midway -- which the Chiefs met in their first state championship game in '96, a 42-13 loss. Borland knows that if his squad starts out against the Vikings like it did during the sectional, it could spell "T-R-O-U-B-L-E."
"We can't afford to do that anymore," he asserted. "We have to be ready to play from the beginning because they get tougher each game."