Sandia’s Michael Scarlett gets past Clovis High’s Jaden Isler to catch a 35-yard touchdown pass during Friday’s Class 5A state quarterfinal playoff game at Leon Williams Stadium. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Greg Price: CNJ sports writer
After congratulatory handshakes with Sandia’s players, Clovis senior linebacker Cade Wheeler squatted on the 40-yard line and soaked in his last few moments as a Wildcat at Leon Williams Stadium.
The rest of the Cats huddled in front of the Clovis marching band as the school song rang from their instruments.
Clovis’ quest for a Class 5A state championship was over.
What happened: Sandia came into Leon Williams Stadium and upset Clovis 24-21 Friday night at Leon Williams Stadium, advancing to a 1 p.m. Class 5A state semifinal on Saturday against top-ranked and defending champion Mayfield at Las Cruces.
Why it happened: Clovis turned the ball over four times. The Matadors intercepted junior quarterback Jordan Mendoza three times, while senior running back Brian Mead lost a fumble with eight minutes left in the game.
The fumble gave the Matadors position for another score at the 14-yard line, but the Cats forced them to settle for a 28-yard field goal by junior Alex Gutierrez. It was the only turnover the Matadors converted for a score, and clinched the game.
Multi-talented player: While senior quarterback Derris Jackson cut up the Cats’ defense, Matadors senior wide receiver-free safety Michael Scarlett proved his versatility.
Scarlett opened the scoring with a 35-yard touchdown reception from Jackson just under four minutes into the contest. Then on Clovis’ final drive, he picked off Mendoza to end the Cats’ comeback chances.
“At the end of the game, I read the wrong route,” Mendoza said. “I misread it and Michael Scarlett picked it off. That last play was my fault.”
Three-week layoff: The Cats were slow coming out the gate Friday, while Sandia was fresh and used to real game speed.
“Part of it is it took us a half to get back up to game speed,” CHS assistant coach Darren Kelley said.
Sandia coach Kevin Barker also said the Cats looked rusty.
“I think the three weeks off, I know it didn’t affect maybe three of the four (quarterfinals), but it affected them,” Barker said. “It was a great effort by us, and they (Cats) played a terriffic second half.”
A few more rushes: Mead finished the season with 2,185 rushing yards, 12 shy of Doug Cavanaugh’s 1992 record, but he surpassed Kelley’s 1985 mark of 2,086 for second all-time.
While Sandia held Clovis to 95 rushing yards in the first half, Mead still showed flashes of the brilliance Clovis fans had become used to seeing.
After Mendoza’s second pick of the game, Wheeler intercepted Jackson with 0.3 seconds remaining in the third quarter. That set up a game-tying, 26-yard reverse for a touchdown by Mead, on which he hurdled two defenders, with 10:23 left in the game.
But ultimately, Sandia stopped Mead at the key moments.
“They’re athletic and they’re aggressive,” Kelley said of the Matadors’ defense. “We were just a couple plays here or there from breaking it.”
Parting words: With their faces sullen and full of tears, Kelley walked around the Clovis locker room giving each of his seniors words of encouragement.
“I spent the last three years with them,” he said. “Like I told (senior tight end) Michael (Lewis), I love him and I want him to go to the gym now and be successful in the gym. There’s nothing they can do, they just need to learn from it.”
Kelley also said this game can serve as a learning experience for the sophomores and juniors.
“The biggest thing you want them to remember is what this feels like,” Kelley said. “People forget that it’s March, April, May and June when you come together as a team and win it. That’s what they have to learn.”