In the first quarter of Friday's Division VI quarterfinal — a rematch of the 2011 title game — it looked like the first team to get a defensive stop would win.
Then Joy Christian's defense came up with four straight stops on Joseph City in the second quarter to turn a 12-8 first quarter deficit into a 46-12 halftime rout. No. 4 seed Joy Christian (9-0) rolled from there to knock out No. 5 Joseph City (7-2) 74-24.
It's fair to say this was more than your average quarterfinal win for the Eagles. Joseph City is the three-time defending state champion in 8-man football, and earned its most recent title by beating Joy Christian 38-6 last year.
"Coach did something really important that touched me before we came out here. He had us go in the gym and look at the state runner up banner," senior tight end Travis Deason said. "We just stared at it and he said 'This is the team that took it from you. What are you guys going to do about it?'"
The Wildcats came out like a defending champ, chewing up 65 yards on 11 plays to score. Only one was a pass, but that 28-yard heave from senior quarterback Jacob Fields to junior wide receiver Wyatt Johnson set up the visitors.
Junior Conner Neal ran up the gut from a yard out. Joseph City missed its two-point try and led 6-0.
Sophomore tailback Godfrey Mudavanhu bolted for 11 yards, hurdling a Wildcats defender. Junior quarterback Nick Henderson scored from a yard out on the next play and converted the two-pointer for a 8-6 Eagles lead.
Joseph City survived two fumbled pitches to regain the advantage. Fields hit Johnson again for 21 yards on fourth down. On the next fourth down play, senior Josh Burt burst off tackle for a 37-yard touchdown two seconds before the first quarter ended.
The Eagles took command with their short passing game, and Henderson found Deason alone in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown.
"Everything was just clicking. The line was making great blocks and the receivers were getting open," Henderson said.
Now up 14-12, the home team received the play of the game from sophomore defensive lineman Daniel Vargas, who ripped the ball right out of Fields' hands at the Wildcats' 36.
Three plays later, Henderson struck again on a six-yard connection with freshman Isaiah Goodspeed and followed with a two-pointer to push the margin to 22-12.
"We've really lived off of turnovers this year," Joy Christian coach Brian Cole said. "Once we were able to get that turnover and get ahead, it never changed after that."
The defense wasn't done, stopping the stubborn Wildcats on fourth and 14 from their 21. Mudavanhu cashed in shortly thereafter with a two-yard run.
Now up 30-12 the Eagles pushed for more as senior Cody Way recovered a fumbled exchange on Joseph City's next play. Henderson sucked in the pass rush, then hit senior Jerardo Samarripas on a middle screen for a 13-yard scoring play.
Another fourth-down stop allowed Joy Christian to tack on a fifth touchdown in the second quarter. Samarripas went off tackle 23 yards to make it 46-12 at the half.
"If we could hold them on fourth down, we knew we could take advantage of it. We got a couple of short fields and scored," Cole said. "Our defense is the key to our success this year. We've got great senior leadership. Our two linebackers are both phenomenal, David Lee and Jose Rizo. Pete Castillo in the middle is really hard to run against."
Things slowed down in the second half. The Eagles took nearly six minutes to score with Deason again leaking behind the coverage for a 38-yard scoring strike.
Burt burrowed in from a yard out and Fields took off 47 yards on a bootleg for the Wildcats' second half scores.
Henderson tossed his fifth and sixth touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Deason broke open again on a post route for a 50-yard score, while Aaron Martin sat down in the corner of the end zone for the eight-yard capper.
They were Henderson's top two targets again. Deason caught 11 passes for 121 yards, while Martin snagged 10 for 60 yards.
A year after being knocked out early by a torn knee ligament in the title game loss, Henderson was virtually perfect. He completed 26 or 27 passes for 211 yards — on a field 80-yards long mind you.
"We got the revenge we wanted," Henderson said.
Now the Eagles focus on a somewhat surprising semifinal foe. No. 8 seed Valley Lutheran (8-2) shocked previously undefeated top seed Scottsdale Prep 49-32 Friday.
The Nov. 3 semifinal kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday on the standard-sized field at Sunnyslope High School, 35 W. Dunlap Ave., Phoenix. It's also rematch, of a 60-14 Joy Christian win at home Sept. 21.
Cole and his players began guarding against resting on their laurels from Friday's win minutes after the buzzer. With 2012 as their last shot before moving up to 11-man competition in Division V, the Eagles are quick to say they're only halfway to their goal.
"We loved beating Joe City this week. But we didn't start this season breaking our huddles with 'We're gonna beat Joe City.' We started it with, 'State champs,'" Deason said. "None of my teammates are satisfied with just this win. We want to go all the way."