RENO - If there was ever a time when a team had an appropriate nickname it came on an unseasonably warm November Northern Nevada day in this place. The Yerington football team did indeed show the heart of a Lion.
The thing is on this day, the Mustangs had just as much heart. Yerington was denied the NIAA 2A State Championship in Saturday's finals at Damonte Ranch when Needles put together a 91-yard drive in the fourth quarter to come back for an 18-14 win.
But the 91 yards didn't come easy as Yerington hardly budged, making the Mustangs fight for every one of those 91 yards. "It came down to that last drive pretty much," Yerington coach Cody Neville said.
That the Lions were even in a position to stop the Mustangs at the end was a testament to their heart. Needles had run 38 plays to Yerington's 16 in the first half and had outgained the Lions in total yardage 243-50 going into halftime.
But the Yerington defense turned Needles away without points three times after the Mustangs had driven inside the Lions 10-yard line, forcing Needles to settle for a 12-0 halftime lead.
This wasn't a bend, but not break defense. This was a hanging by the thread defense. And when Stephen Skroch picked up a fumble forced by Chris Smith and ran it in 32 yards for the touchdown, Yerington had a 14-12 lead.
But Skroch hurt his ankle as he was tackled crossing the goal line and played with the heavily taped ankle the rest of the game.
"It hurts," said Skroch, commenting on his ankle - and the loss. When asked if Yerington could have done anything more, Skroch said, "I don't think we could have. We played as hard as we could."
It was Skroch's 52-yard punt that had pinned Needles back to its nine. Needles had driven down to inside Yerington's 10 the Lions' Jess Emm sacked Michael Evans for a two-yard loss, forcing the Mustangs into a fourth and seven at the 10.
Evans then tried to throw a fade patter pass to Darra Russell, but his pass sailed well out of bounds. A penalty flag, though, was thrown against the Yerington defender on the play.
If the ruling was pass interference, the pass could be ruled uncatchable, the flag could be picked up and the state title would be Yerington's. But holding instead was called, giving Needles another chance on fourth and two at the five.
It appeared Yerington had stopped Needles again when Sean Watson sacked Evans for a loss back to the 13. But Watson inadvertantly grabbed Evans' facemask on the play.
The penalty gave Needles another shot, this time on fourth and four at the seven. Evans took advantage, completing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Kidd with one minute, three seconds left.
Burke Bristol's desperation pass was eventually intercepted by Russell to clinch the title.
"Unfortunate, a very unlucky facemask," Neville said. "Accidental. It's just the luck of the game. It's just hard to pull off an amazing comeback under those circumstances."
Yerington had trouble containing the athleticism of players like Russell and Kidd in the first half. "They have some really outstanding athletes," Neville said.
Needles scored in less than a minute-and-a-half to begin the game on Evans' 49-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was blocked, making the score 6-0.
The Mustangs later went up on a fourth and goal on Evans' 16-yard touchdown pass from Evans to Russell. The pass resembled an alley oop play as Russell made a leaping catch in the end zone.
But Yerington's defense kept the Lions in the game with those three stands inside its own 10. The last came near the end of the half on fourth and inches just shy of the goal line.
Evans was stuffed as he tried to sneak it in. The ball was actually knocked back loose and was picked up by Derek Tye, but the Lions tackled him at the one. Daniel Bauer then had a key 13-yard run, ensuring Yerington wouldn't have to give the ball back to Needles before halftime.
"Our team and coaches felt confident at halftime," Neville said. "Our defense gave us momentum there in the entire first half. It's just the credit to the defense. They just really stepped up there."
Jimmy Roberts returned the opening kickoff 54 yards, setting up Yerington at the Needles 39. Bristol then completed a 22-yard pass to Smith, setting up a Roberts' 4-yard touchdown run. Zach Monahan kicked the extra point to make it 12-7.
Later Smith forced Russell to fumble and Skroch picked it up and ran it in. Monahan kicked the extra point to make it 14-12.
Neville said while the loss was painful, he'll miss his seniors more. "Losing the game, that hurts, but seeing the kids go is far harder," he said.
At least for next season, the Lions won't have the chance to go for another 2A state title as the NIAA board is forcing Yerington back up to 3A based on its enrollment, which barely exceeds the 3A level.
There's no secret how Neville feels about the board's decision. "That's yet to be seen," said Neville about his program's future.
"Everybody knows where we belong. If anybody has any education and background of the situation it's a no-brainer."