West Mesquite entered Thursday’s 7-5A Division I game against Wylie East in search of its first win, but it did not start out the way it hoped.
The Wranglers threw an interception on their third offensive snap and two plays later, they found themselves staring a 7-0 deficit in the face.
But West Mesquite stayed focused and after trading punches for the remainder of the first half, it took control in the second to pull away for a 41-27 victory at Mesquite Memorial Stadium.
There was a combination of celebration and relief as the final seconds ticked off the clock, as the Wranglers (1-7 overall, 1-3 in district), not only won their first game of the season, but first for new head coach Frank Sandoval.
“The kids have improved so much week by week and I told them, go back and look at yourself in week 1 and you’ll probably laugh at yourselves, that’s how far they have come,” Sandoval said. “We challenge them every day and as coaches, our job is to make them better, make them stronger and put them in a position to be successful and they are believing in that.”
Though West Mesquite ran only one offensive snap during a 15-minute stretch in the first half, big plays allowed them to take a 21-20 lead into halftime.
The offensive diversity they showed during the first two quarters paid dividends coming out of the locker room.
Wylie East seemed caught off guard by the Wranglers’ shuffling of personnel—at quarterback, in the backfield and on the outside.
After forcing a punt, West Mesquite drove 90 yards in 10 plays, with D’Erian Mitchell taking a quick pitch from Jay Cipriano and racing down the sideline for a 33-yard score to push the lead to 27-20.
After Denzel Evans blocked a punt, the Wranglers needed just four plays to cash in, as Mitchell scored on a 2-yard run to make it a two-score game at 34-20.
Wylie East was able to find the end zone on its next drive, but West Mesquite had an immediate answer, as Augustine Pokawa broke loose for a 34-yard touchdown run to extend the advantage to 41-27 and the Raiders did not have another charge.
Sandoval said this is the first week they have rotated Cipriano and Craig Dale to that extent and thought it gave the offense two different dimensions. Cipriano, a senior, shook off the early interception to finish 5-of-6 for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Dale was 3-of-3 for 3 for 53 yards through the air and added 61 yards on five carries.
While the first half was a back-and-forth battle, the West Mesquite defense ensured that the second was a one-sided affair.
The Wranglers did not play poorly during the first two quarters, but the hard-nosed running of Christian Johnson allowed Wylie East to convert 5-of-7 on third downs and after one of the two stops, the Raiders were successful on fourth to move the chains.
It was a different story after halftime, as West Mesquite held Wylie East to 48 total yards, with its lone score coming after a long kickoff return gave them a short field.
“The kids are starting to understand the verbiage and what we are telling them as coaches and they are starting to speak our language; their level of thinking and football IQ is going up,” Sandoval said. “We just told the defense at halftime to calm down and they started to play the way they are capable.”
After falling behind early, the Wranglers quickly moved 75 yards in eight plays and Dale hooked up with Javion Jackson on a 13-yard scoring strike to close to within 7-6.
The Raiders countered with a methodical march, capped by Johnson’s 10-yard touchdown run to retake the advantage at 13-7.
After Wylie East’s 12-play drive, West Mesquite needed just one, as Cipriano threw a deep ball to Devin Duncan, who made a leaping catch over two defenders and then maintained his balance to complete a 70-yard touchdown. Cipriano found T.J. Turner on the two-point conversion to take a 14-13 lead.
Johnson found the end zone for the third time in the half to cap a 75-yard drive for Wylie East, but on the ensuing kickoff, the Wranglers showed off their big-play ability once again, as Jhi’Ron Randall caught the ball at the 17, made one cut and then out-ran the Raiders to the end zone on a 83-yard return to give West Mesquite a 21-20 lead it would take into halftime and the rest of the night belonged to them.
Thursday’s breakthrough win might not be enough to ignite a late-season playoff push this year, but it represents another step forward to where they expect to be for the final two weeks of this regular season and in the future.
“We have a standard, and we’re never going to lower that standard, not for the players, the coaches, not myself,” Sandoval said. “They are starting to turn a corner, both on the field and in their behavior off the field … there have been some tough times, and we work through those, but we are also going to celebrate success. I expect them to go out and play four quarters at Wranglers speed every play, nothing more, nothing less, and if we do that, we’re a scary football team, so as a coaching staff, it is our job to make sure they’ll be ready to do that.”