PHOENIX — The Phoenix High football team played its way into the Class 4A state playoffs by limiting mistakes and converting scoring chances in the red zone. But on Friday night against La Grande, Phoenix was undone by what had previously been its calling cards.
Phoenix lost five turnovers, including an interception inside the 10-yard line, and La Grande held on for a 25-15 victory to end the Pirates’ season in the opening round of the state playoffs.
The No. 11-seeded Tigers (8-2) scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in the first half and never trailed, thwarting the sixth-seeded Pirates (7-3) with timely defensive stops.
G.T. Blackman, a senior defensive back and receiver for La Grande, had two interceptions in the span of three offensive plays by Phoenix in the second half, leading to a 37-yard field goal by Isaac Chamberlain and a 30-yard touchdown run by Nathan Reed that put the Tigers ahead 25-7 early in the fourth quarter.
Javan Gail, Phoenix’s senior quarterback, answered with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Samis and a two-point conversion pass to Chase Courtney to stage a late rally for the Pirates, but La Grande’s defense held on to the protect the lead, including an interception by Parker Robinson on Phoenix’s final possession.
“They outplayed us tonight,” said Gail, who completed 18 of 33 attempts for 280 yards. “I thought we prepared, but we just came up a little bit short.”
“They played us pretty tough in the back and up front they kind of handled us a little bit,” he added.
The game’s marquee matchup featured Blackman at his cornerback position against Courtney, a 6-foot-3 senior wide receiver who hauled in eight receptions for 158 yards.
“That was a great personal battle out there,” La Grande coach Harold Shannon said. “I put (Blackman) out there one-on-one (against Courtney) and I said, ‘Do what you can do.’ And we talked about the possibility of giving up plays and just bouncing back and making the next play and that’s what we did.”
Midway through the third quarter Gail hooked up with Courtney for a 40-yard reception and Gail ran for 15 yards on the following play to give Phoenix a first-and-goal at the 10-yard line, but the Pirates committed penalties on two of the next four plays and came up empty on the possession.
“We’ve been really good in the red zone, especially inside the 10-yard line, this year — I think we’ve only not gotten in the end zone one time inside the 10 the whole year,” Phoenix coach Jered Gail said. “So we’ve prided ourselves with that and we’ve done a good job with it. We messed that series up, it didn’t work out and it definitely hurt us.”
Mason Firestone, a senior linebacker, intercepted a pass in La Grande territory that led to the first touchdown for Phoenix, a 4-yard run by Micheal Walker, and Josue Espana’s extra point kick made it 14-7 heading into halftime.
But the Pirates couldn’t overcome the big plays by Blackman — who caught a 54-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Andrew Peasley for the game’s opening score and had two long touchdowns called back due to penalties — and their own mistakes, including a fumbled kickoff recovered by the Tigers that led to a 4-yard touchdown run by Reed.
“They turned the ball over less than we did. That was the whole game,” Jered Gail said. “In these (muddy field) conditions, that’s the name of the game.”
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts — that’s not a better team than us,” he added. “We didn’t play as clean as needed to to win. That’s the key.”
During their five-game winning streak, the Pirates turned the ball over just five times total while averaging 48 points per game as they made their first trip to the state playoffs since posting a 1-1 postseason record in 2014.
It was Phoenix’s second trip to the postseason since advancing to the 4A state semifinals in 2009.
“I’m just really proud of our guys, just working hard in the offseason,” Javan Gail said. “We did enough to get into (the playoffs) and at least we got a game. Nothing more than you can ask for. … Ultimately, you want to get to the state championship and we were unable to do that, but you just can’t look down on it.”
Jered Gail added: “(This was a) tremendous group of senior kids that worked really hard to make it count. And that was their theme: to make it count. And they did and I’m super proud of them regardless of the way tonight turned out.”
LG — Blackman 54 pass from Peasley (kick failed)
LG — Reed 4 run (Peasley run)
P — Walker 4 run (Espana kick)
LG — FG Chamberlain 37
LG — Reed 30 run (Blackman pass from Peasley)
P — Samis 21 pass from Gail (Courtney pass from Gail)
Reach reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or firstname.lastname@example.org