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October 13, 2007

Northwest nail-biter

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- In this northwest corner of the nation, known much more for software geeks than hard-hitting football, Friday's Class 4A showdown between WashingtonPreps.com No. 1 Bothell and No. 3 Eastlake had the sort of playoff-worthy intensity and packed-house clamor made famous by prep football in the opposite corner of the U.S.

Down 13-3 in the third quarter, Bothell (7-0) scored 16 unanswered points and held off a last-gasp drive by Eastlake (6-1) for a 19-13 win that puts the Cougars in the catbird's seat for the KingCo 4A division title and home-field advantage in the playoffs until the state title game.

Bothell won the KingCo title in 2002, 2003 and 2006 and played in the state 4A title game last season.

There was more than a little revenge in play for Eastlake, whose 4A hopes last season were dashed by a 17-3 road loss to Bothell.

Despite Friday's defeat, the Wolves are still in the hunt for the 4A playoffs and have a chance for a rematch with Bothell in the championship game at the Tacoma Dome.

The night's chilly -- but rain-free -- contest in this Microsoft-populated suburb east of Seattle was expected to be a showcase of two of the state's top quarterbacks, both Rivals.com two-star prospects -- 6-foot-5 John Hekker of Bothell and 6-foot-3 Ryan Robertson of Eastlake.

Though the two signal-callers didn't disappoint -- each threw for just over 225 yards -- the outcome was decided more by a flurry of yellow flags, untimely turnovers and three key plays by Hekker's supporting cast.

"Ryan's a great quarterback," said Hekker. "His team came out and fought the whole game. I knew it was going to come down to one of us making a good play, or our defense standing up. Our defense stood up to the very end. We were ready. I don't think it was that much about me vs. Ryan, it was our teams vs. each other. That's what my coach had me focus on the whole week. It wasn't an individual battle as much as it was my team against his. It was amazing."

"Obviously we had a few turnovers," said Eastlake head coach Gene Dales, "but the penalties were an absolute killer. It seemed as if we could never get any momentum going because every time we turned around, we were going backwards 10 yards. It was awfully frustrating."

Bothell scored first on a 26-yard field goal by Hekker at 4:30 in the first quarter after the Cougars recovered an Eastlake fumble at the Wolves' 30. On the short drive, an Eastlake interception near the end zone was nullified by a pass interference penalty.

Eastlake responded with a 66-yard drive (during which the Wolves converted on a 4th-and-4 on the Bothell 36) capped off by an 18-yard swing pass from Robertson to Taylor Lappano for the score with 11:45 left in the half. The PAT was no good, leaving the score at 6-3 Eastlake.

Bothell then drove into scoring territory thanks to a 75-yard dash up the middle on a 3rd-and-27 by Jonathan Kirchner, but the Cougars lost a fumble to Eastlake's Kolby Kemp at the 8-yard line.

The half ended with Hekker throwing three consecutive incomplete passes to Ben Moschel in the end zone before Eastlake's Stephen Nasca batted away a 4th-down try as time expired.

Eastlake took the second-half kickoff and had driven mostly on the ground to the Bothell 25 when Robertson rolled to his left and threaded a pass near the goal line to TE Tanner Nilsen, who snatched the ball from the defender just inside the pylon for the TD.

Leading 13-3 with 7 minutes left in the third, Eastlake appeared to have the contest well in control before its raucous home crowd. But the opposing stands erupted moments later when RB/DB Cory Burk took the Wolves' kickoff at the 3 and dashed nearly untouched up the center of the field before veering down the left sideline for a 97-yard scoring return. The PAT narrowed the gap to 13-10.

The game's outcome turned on Eastlake's ensuing drive. On 3rd-and-18 at the Bothell 33 with about a minute left in the quarter, Robertson scrambled to his left and zipped a pass to 6-foot-4 WR Cory Mackay, who somehow snagged the ball away from two defenders at the 4.

Mackay stayed on his feet and dragged the tacklers toward the goal line, but just before he crossed the stripe, the ball popped loose into the end zone where a defender scooped it up and returned it to the 4.

The Wolves were subsequently flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for their protests that Mackay had crossed the goal line before fumbling. So instead of Eastlake leading 20-10, Bothell now had the ball at its own 19 trailing by only three.

Hekker then led the Cougars on a time-consuming drive -- kept alive with an 18-yard pass to Ben Moschel on 3rd-and-17 at the 34 -- that culminated with a game-tying 18-yard field goal by Hekker with 8:35 left in the game.

The Wolves drove into Bothell territory on the ensuing possession, powered by the between-the-tackles running of Lappano. But on a 3rd-and-6 at the Cougars' 45, Robertson's scrambling pass was picked off at the 37. Then, on 3rd-and-1 at the 46, Hekker found TE Craig Monson over the middle and the 6-foot-3 senior sprinted down the right sideline for a 54-yard TD. Hekker's PAT attempt sailed left, keeping the Cougars' lead at 19-13.

After Scott Payton returned the ensuing kickoff 25 yards to the Eastlake 40 with just under five minutes left in the game, the table appeared to be set perfectly for the Wolves' game-winning drive.

But after Robertson's five-yard pass to TE Easton Fix came up just inches short of the 50, the Cougars' defense submarined Lappano for a 1-yard loss on fourth down, and Bothell took over with 3:13 left.

Kirchner's runs of 18 and 10 yards gave the Cougars a 1st-and-goal at the 10, but the Wolves' defense closed the door for no gain on the next three plays, and Hekker's 28-yard field goal attempt, which would have put the game out of reach, was partially blocked, giving Eastlake the ball at its own 20 with 1:38 left.

Having spent all three timeouts during the previous series, the Wolves needed Robertson to do his best impression of John Elway, but the senior threw four successive incompletions from his own 38 to end Eastlake's hopes.

"This win means a lot," said Hekker. "We came in and kind of puttered around in the first half and didn't play Bothell Cougar football. In the second half, they almost had another big touchdown, and that woke us up. We had to stay in the game to the end to prove that we're a tough team."

"We're going to regroup and get ourselves ready to play," said Dales. "If it was truly a No. 1 vs. No. 3 [matchup] and we lost by less than a score and we had our opportunities, then I would say that we're a pretty good football team playing good football.

"If we see Bothell again, it would be in the state championship, which would be great. We're going to have to work our way up; we have a little tougher road with the road games, but we'll play whoever shows up and we'll get after it."



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