First-and-goal from 2 yards out and 10 seconds on the clock. No timeouts.
That was the situation the Homer Mariners football team faced with a Division III state championship up for grabs.
The dearth of timeouts bit the Mariners as one final play came up just shy of the end zone with time expiring, and the Utqiagvik Whalers escaped with a spectacular 20-14 championship victory over Homer on Saturday afternoon at Machentanz Field in Palmer.
“It’s all we got,” said Homer head coach Walter Love, who walked the full length of the Mariners sideline after the game brimming with positive and encouraging remarks.
“Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. Today it was the Whalers.”
The state crown was the first for Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) football, while the runner-up finish for Homer tied the best result in Mariners program history.
Barrow High School head coach Chris Battle said the Whalers came into Saturday’s game with a motto.
“‘Turn dreams into reality,’” Battle said. “They bought into what we were coaching.”
Battle was an assistant coach in 2011 when Utqiagvik lost in the small-schools championship to Nikiski, the Whalers’ only other state final appearance. Battle said when the Whalers football program was created in 2006, the team had to take small steps to build it into what is now a championship contingent.
“The kids progressed every year,” he said.
Junior Ben Heather powered the Barrow offense with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while quarterback Anthony Fruean hit 6 of 16 targets for 56 yards.
The Mariners did not dominate possession — two turnovers will do that to a team — but Homer senior Teddy Croft made it count when they did, rushing for 152 yards and rolling out the highlight play of the day with a booming 82-yard kick return in the third quarter. Croft hit 6 of his 14 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown pass.
The loss will most likely go down as one of the most heartbreaking in Homer prep sports history.
Homer senior defensive back Joe Ravin set up the final drive by reaching up to snag an interception deep in Whalers territory as Utqiagvik was driving for a two-possession game.
“We were just lucky to get them into position where they had to pass,” Ravin said. “My guy ran a post (route), I wasn’t sure if it would get there, but I snagged it and was psyched.
“I thought we had time to score.”
The pick set the Mariners up at their own 14-yard line with 4:34 to play. The drive ate up almost all 86 yards in 14 plays, and included a crucial third-and-six pass conversion from Croft to Felde that moved the chains 19 yards.
Homer faced fourth-and-one from the Whalers’ 4-yard line with 37 seconds to go and Croft converted with a push up the middle to the Utqiagvik 2.
From there, sophomore Noah Fisk took a handoff but was met with a harsh Whalers rush that pushed him back a yard. Unfortunately, the Mariners had already used their last timeout, and with under 10 seconds left, Homer had to scramble to get one last snap off.
Croft took the snap and ran straight towards the goal line, only to meet a wall of Whalers, which set the Utqiagvik sideline into a frenzy with zeros on the clock.
“We had some trouble not recognizing signs in the no-huddle (offense),” Love explained. “There was a missed read, some dropped balls. It didn’t go according to plan.”
Battle said the final goal-line stand provided the greatest exclamation point on a 7-2 season.
“I said our boys need to bow up here,” Battle recounted. “All the seniors stepped up.”
Croft, who accounted for 59 yards of offense himself on the final drive by going 2 for 5 through the air and eating up 36 yards rushing, said it wasn’t a case of nerves on the final three plays that cost the Mariners, but just a few select mistakes.
“We were in such a rush,” he said. “We had a block that missed. I don’t know.”
Homer struck first in the opening quarter with an 11-yard scoring pass from Croft to Justin Sumption to put the Mariners up 6-0.
Utqiagvik answered with a 12-play, 64-yard drive that ended in a 1-yard plunge into the end zone by Heather.
Dawson Felde capped the first half with a diving end zone interception to keep Utqiagvik from scoring more.
The Whalers opened the first half with a touchdown pass from Fruean to Calvin Miller to open the lead at 14-6, but Croft, who came up rubbing his ribs from the point-after kick, answered by returning the kickoff 82 yards to the house.
Croft followed a couple of blockers through the initial wave of defenders, then put on the afterburners and streaked through a few holes to make it count. Homer tied it on a two-point pass from Croft to Ravin.
Noah Fisk, who finished with 45 yards rushing, fumbled the ball on a deep Homer drive early in the fourth quarter, and Utqiagvik seemed destined to ice the game with a long drive into Homer territory.
Ravin put an end to that with a leaping interception to keep hope alive, setting up the climactic final Mariners drive.
Whalers 20, Mariners 14
Homer 6 0 8 0 —14
Utqiagvik 0 7 7 6 —20
Hom — Sumption 11 pass from Croft (pass failed), 5:29
Bar — Heather 1 run (Heather kick), 9:52
Bar — Miller 14 pass from Fruean (Heather kick), 6:59
Hom — Croft 82 kick return (Ravin pass from Croft), 6:46
Bar — Heather 9 run (kick failed), 11:37
1st downs 13 15
Rushing 29-200 43-270
Pass yards 68 56
Total yards 268 326
Comp-att-int 6-14-0 6-16-2
Return yards 124 18
Punts 1 2
Fumbles-lost 2-2 1-1
Penalties-yards 6-85 14-110
Rushing — Homer: Croft 14-152, Fisk 13-45, Love 1-0, Felde 1-3. Utqiagvik: Heather 22-134, Adams 10-91, Chan 8-37, Fruean 2-2, Miller 1-6.
Passing — Homer: Croft 6-14-0—68. Utqiagvik: Fruean 6-16-2—56.