When recounting the frenetic contest from which his team emerged victorious, a bewildered but relieved Bear Lake head coach Ryan Messerly quoted the late New York Yankees Hall of Famer and renowned quip machine Yogi Berra:
“It’s deja vu all over again.”
The Bear Lake Bears (9-1) punched their ticket to the 2A title game Saturday afternoon in Holt Arena, prevailing in a thrilling 28-27 overtime victory against the vaunted West Side Pirates (9-2).
On Sept. 23, the Bears handed the Pirates their first loss on the gridiron in three years in a contest that also ended with the Bears winning 28-27 in overtime. The uncanny similarities don’t end there.
The Pirates received the ball first, just like they did during the regular season, and scored right away on a Parker Moser 10-yard run. However, West Side's 2-point conversion run attempt was stuffed at the 1-yard-line. The Bears' overtime possession began at the 5-yard line after an illegal substitution on West Side, but Bear Lake ran for no gain twice and was sacked up third down. One more stop and the Pirates’ single loss in three years would be avenged and their comeback would be complete.
Bear Lake quarterback Tayson Neal had other plans.
Neal took the snap on the final down of the game and calmly threw a back shoulder fade to the 6-foot-4 Bryson Crane, who hauled in in 8-yard pass despite heavy interference from two Pirate defenders. As much of the offense that came from Neal's arm, but it was actually a foot that sealed the game for Bear Lake, with the extra point by Toby Flake handing the Bears the final margin.
"I told their coach after --- and, I mean, they did a great job --- (that) 'we can game plan all we want --- and I felt like our game plan was solid --- but Neal is a great quarterback and Crane is just a weapon,' and that's just all there is to it,'" West Side head coach Tyson Moser said. "And we double covered him, we bumped him, we tried to do about everything we could and he still makes plays. Like you said, I've been on the other end of that, so yeah just give them credit."
In Saturday’s contest, the Bears looked sensational on the opening drive, with Neal completing a 43-yard dart to Crane on the second play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Neal hit Flake in stride for a 36-yard touchdown pass at the 9:53 mark of the first quarter.
Neal further demonstrated his deep-ball talent in the second quarter, launching a 55-yard scoring strike to Flake early in the frame and finding Crane for a 34-yard touchdown with four minutes left in the half. Flake only had three catches this season prior to Saturday's showdown, but came up huge with the two explosive TD receptions.
Conversely, the Pirates came away with no points in the first quarter, their single, run-heavy drive that chewed up most of the first quarter clock ending with a turnover on downs.
Down 13-0 and desperate to keep the deficit manageable, Parker Moser ran like a man possessed on the following possession. The junior first set up the Pirates with prime field position following a 50-yard kickoff return. Moser then caught a pass for 10 yards and rushed twice, the second going for 22 hard-earned yards and finding the end zone, paring the deficit to 13-7 after a successful extra point kick.
Bear Lake didn’t take long to answer, with Neal’s aforementioned 34-yard touchdown pass to Crane coming just three football minutes after Moser’s score. The Pirates had a sustained drive in the closing seconds of the second half, marching the ball down to the Bear Lake 23-yard line, but Bear Lake blew up the next play and headed into halftime with a 21-7 lead. West Side trailed Bear Lake 20-7 at the half during the regular season.
Fortunately for the Pirates, the second halves of each respective game mirrored each other as well. Just as in the earlier contest, the West Side defense came alive, holding Bear Lake scoreless for the entire second half.
"Yeah, I was super proud of our kids' effort," coach Moser said. "I mean, they could have quit. Right before halftime we drove (nearly the length of) the field and we just couldn't quite punch it in, but we continued to give ourselves chances. I mean, the kids just fought super hard. Our drive at the end to tie the game was just amazing, and the kids just really fought and played hard. I'm just really proud of them."
Following an efficient, run-heavy drive in the third quarter that brought the Pirates to the goal line at the close of the third quarter, Easton Shurtliff rumbled into the end zone from 3 yards out on the first play of the fourth quarter. The extra point hit the right upright, however, leaving the Bears' with an 8-point lead.
Neal went ice cold in the fourth quarter, completing just one of six passes and allowing the Pirates one final drive in the waning minutes of the game to attempt to even up the one-score game.
Pirates quarterback Eli Brown orchestrated a gutsy drive atypical of normal West Side fashion, relying primarily on his arm to move the Pirates downfield. On a do-or-die fourth and 10, Brown found wideout Colby Bowles for a crucial 31-yard gain. With less than a minute to go and on the Bear Lake 11-yard line, the Pirates converted another fourth down on a Shurtliff run. After a spike, a short completion to Shurtliff and another spike that chewed up all but 10 seconds of the game clock, Brown threw a picture-perfect 7-yard fourth-and-goal pass to Garrett Robinson in the corner of the end zone, elating the Pirate faithful and bringing the Pirates within two. One Shurtliff rumble later and the Pirates tied the game.
"Yeah, I told the kids, I said, 'that drive, I'll remember that the rest of my life,'" said coach Moser, whose team overcame a holding penalty early in that possession. "That was just one of those moments that you'll never forget."
Brown ended up completing a very efficient 16 of 22 passes for 172 yards and zero interceptions. The junior was picked off three times by the Bears during the regular season, which included a pick-six by Neal.
The Pirates clawed their way to 217 yards on 51 rushing attempts on their way to 389 yards of total offense. Parker Moser led the way with 88 yards on 19 carries, followed by Shurtliff with 66 on 14. Bowles contributed with 73 yards on four receptions.
West Side limited Bear Lake to 28 rushing yards, but Neal threw for 248 yards and his aforementioned trio of TDs. Neal was picked off by Robinson on the final play of regulation.
Indeed, it was a valiant effort by the Pirates, who managed to win nine games this season, which included victories over eventual Utah 1A state champion Layton Christian and Firth, which will square off against Bear Lake in next week's 2A title tilt. West Side, which also defeated 2A semifinalist Aberdeen, was able to come oh so close to a shot at an unprecedented fourth straight state championship despite graduating what is widely regarded as its best senior class in program history.
"We started out this year with eight seniors and we picked up one late, so we had nine seniors and those seniors had to replace 15 of maybe the best seniors we've ever had," coach Moser said. "And it very easily could have been a subpar year, it very easily could have been a 4-4 or 5-4 kind of season. So, I'm just really proud of these seniors for what they've done. You know, we talk about carrying the mantle and the mantle was passed onto them, and they should be very proud of what they accomplished and what they did this year. We very easily have been 0-2 with Firth and Layton Christian to start the year."
Herald Journal sports writer Jason Turner contributed to this report