SALT LAKE CITY — All week long East High head coach Brandon Matich preached "playing with love" to his team. On Friday night, his team took that message to heart when the Leopards upset Bingham 20-16 in the 6A quarterfinals.
"Coach told us 'play with love' this whole week,” East's Nick Sessions said. "That’s been our whole theme for the week, so we’ve been playing with love, practicing love; it was all about love, so we came out here, loved each other and balled out together.”
After East started off the game with a false start penalty on the kickoff, it didn’t take long for Bingham to get on the board. The Miners took all of two minutes to score as Preston Larsen rushed for an 8-yard touchdown to put his team up early.
The false start and giving up points on the opening drive had the East sideline quiet, and the flashback of the four previous Miners victories over the Leopards became ever so present. But Sessions had other plans. On a Miners' punt, Sessions returned it 98 yards for a touchdown just seconds later to tie the game up.
“It was the most exciting game,” Sessions said. “It was the biggest game of my career to be honest. Beating my old school, coming in for what could be my last playoff game; it was just a big game, I’m just excited we won.”
After forcing the Miners to punt on its next possession, the Leopards took advantage of the momentum and Iversyn Tapusoa capped off the ensuing drive with a 4-yard rushing touchdown to give East a one-score lead.
The Miners didn’t wouldn't go down without a fight, though. Minutes before halftime, the Miners' defense forced a fumble and defensive end Viliami Pouha recovered it on the 5-yard line to stop East from adding to its lead.
Bingham would turn the fumble into points after Troy Mehn rushed for a 6-yard touchdown on a quarterback keeper to tie up the game. But that would be the last score for the Miners as the East defense held Bingham scoreless for the remainder of the game.
“It’s a great thing our defense stepped up”, Matich said. “We seemed like we wanted to keep turning the ball over to them and giving up the football. Man, I’m so proud of these guys, they have so much fight. They have so much passion and love, and they’re just such great kids.”
After finding stops on defense, the Leopards were able to add to their lead when Izaak Zimmerman found Tapusoa for a 19-yard touchdown reception with six minutes left in the third, but the ensuing point-after attempt was blocked by the Miners.
With just over four minutes left in the game, the Miners offense found a rhythm, but a fumble by Larsen that was recovered by East's Orion Maile-Kaufisi prevented another scoring attempt.
The Leopards coaching staff then made the decision to allow a safety with 32 seconds left because they didn’t want to risk a punt return being so close to the Miners' end zone. But Bingham's final chance fell short as the Leopards defense held strong one last time.
“Defense wins championships, defense wins championships,” Sessions said. “We don’t fold. We gonna bend, but we ain’t gonna fold.”
Carra McManamon is a native of Washington State and is attending the University of Utah. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @curramac22