'Perfect storm' propels Sunset to all-time comeback win over Southridge
Sunset head football coach Damien Merrick stood in front of his steadfast, lion-hearted group of Apollos, minutes after wresting one of the craziest comebacks in Metro League history away from Southridge.
Merrick's mind was still racing, his heart pounding as he tried to compose himself enough to verbally sum up what his team had just seized. The postgame meeting is an age-old high school football tradition, a chance for the head coach to address his team, win or loss, and either encourage, educate, correct or breathe hope. It's either a cherry on top of a triumph or an olive branch of belief.
And as Merrick positioned himself at the head of the euphoric group, his triumphant veteran coaching staff flanking the outskirts of the perimeter, the faithful Apollo student section waiting on his every utterance, the word that kept coming to Merrick's cognition was "resiliency."
After all, you don't erase a 20-point second-half deficit without a heap of mental and physical toughness. Three-touchdown holes don't vanish without teamwide intestinal fortitude. Once-in-a-lifetime-type upheavals can't happen without systematic staying power, which Sunset seems to have in spades.
On the brink of being upset by a swashbuckling Southridge team coming off a miraculous comeback of its own just a week earlier against Westview, Sunset never surrendered. Rather, with their backs against the wall, and frankly, a shot at a potential Metro championship hanging in the balance, the Apollos pulled off an epic 55-48 come-from-behind heist over Southridge at Southridge High School on Friday.
"I just couldn't believe how resilient they were," Merrick said. "They kept fighting. ... We told them we were proud of them ... but it was just crazy (after the game). All of us were probably feeling like it was a little bit surreal. I've never seen anything like it."
Sunset's resurgence, in reality, started off on a sour note. Sunset scored to cut Southridge's lead to 34-27 and booted the subsequent kickoff deep to the Skyhawk five-yard line. Seemingly penned in, Southridge's special teams unit stormed back up the left sideline for a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown to extend its advantage to 41-27.
That's when the game began to turn in drastic, dramatic fashion. Sunset senior wide receiver Nick Cizik, whose fumble earlier in the first half led to a Skyhawk touchdown, took the ensuing kickoff back for a score himself to bring the Apollos within 41-34. Then, on Southridge's very next offensive play, Sunset senior Ryan Olson picked off Southridge senior quarterback Bradley Bickler and ran back the interception to the end zone to tie the game at 41-41.
The snowball effect continued to surge downhill when Sunset linebacker Nathan Kimball forced a Southridge fumble on the very next offensive play from scrimmage to give the ball back Sunset's offense. Two plays later, Sunset senior quarterback Coleman Newsom hit running back Gabe Leonard for the go-ahead touchdown and the Apollos' first lead of the game at 48-41 with 8:01 left in the fourth quarter.
The three-score flurry mushroomed in just 92 seconds of game action, a seismic momentum swing for the ages that might have been better suited for a Hollywood montage had it not actually unfolded in real life.
"It was just the perfect storm," Merrick said. "There were just so many momentum swings, it was just unbelievable."
With more than eight minutes left on the clock, the Apollo defense got a stop and gave the ball back to Newsom and company, who tacked another touchdown pass to Leonard with just over six minutes left in the fourth to give Sunset a 55-41 upper hand.
Though Sunset had completely turned the game on its ear, Southridge wasn't done.
Bickler and the Skyhawk offense marched down the field in a little over three minutes and punched home a touchdown to cut Sunset's lead to 55-48. And then, to make matters even testier, Southridge recovered the ensuing onside kick around midfield to get the ball back with plenty of time on the clock and a short field to work with.
Yet, rather than yield a game-tying score and extend the game to overtime, the Apollo defense came up clutch. Bickler tried to find a Skyhawk receiver in the end zone, but Cizik coolly plucked the ball away in the paint for the game-sealing interception. Newsom finished the game with four touchdown passes, all of which went to Leonard, 303 passing yards, and 126 rushing yards.
The gumption to not only stay in the game but climb back into it completely came from a mix of past tribulations and current team chemistry.
Merrick said Southridge's chain gang told his staff she'd never heard so much positivity and energy emitting from an opposing sideline, even when the contest was at its lowest moments for the Apollos. Part of that is Sunset's bevy of seniors who exude self-assurance on the gridiron and genuinely care about their teammates' success, not their own personal gains.
"This group cares a lot about each other," Merrick said. "They like to play with each other and play for each other. The difference with this group compared to last year is we've tasted a little bit more success early in the season and the confidence is huge for a football team. Not only do our kids believe in each other and play for each other, but they're playing with confidence, which is great."
Against Liberty two weeks, Sunset found itself staring down the barrel of a two-score, yet battled back in the second half and ultimately won the affair 35-25. And playing Skyview (WA), the Apollos dug themselves out of a four-touchdown rut to make it a ball game in the fourth quarter.
Southridge played an all-world first half. Bickler was every bit the potential D1 athlete he's been billed to be. Junior receiver Keyvaun Eady had a 75-yard touchdown pass. The Skyhawk defense forced turnovers and the offense flipped those into scores. But moreover, Merrick said Sunset "just didn't make plays" in the first two quarters as it normally does.
It's safe to say that switched in the second half.
"We were kind of in a bad place, but we knew at halftime that we hadn't played our best, and we just needed to keep doing what we were capable of," Merrick said. "Whatever happened on the scoreboard, we'd figure it out later."
This type of all-time overthrow is the sort of juice a team can use to fuel a huge end-of-season groundswell into the playoffs. In the next three weeks Sunset hosts Westview then travels to Jesuit for a titanic, possibly winner-take-all showdown and then closes out with a road test at Beaverton.
First things first, however. On Friday, Sunset gets a shot at vengeance against Westview, a team it hasn't beaten since 2013. The Wildcats are on their heels a little bit, after getting upturned by Southridge and soundly taken out by Liberty. The fear Merrick normally would have is the Apollos experience some sort of "emotional letdown" after having to fight and scrap so hard to beat Southridge. Fortunately, the head coach said playing Westview alleviates any worry about coming out flat-footed.
"I won't have to work very hard to get them excited," Merrick said. "We're going to have great practices just because it's Westview, it's our rivals. Kids will be excited about playing Westview, so (beating Southridge) happened at the perfect time for us. We won't have to battle that complacency, I'm hoping."
Westview-Sunset is a crosstown rivalry in every sense. Though they've played against each other most of their young lives, many of Westview and Sunset's players attended elementary and middle school together before splitting their separate ways when it came time to attending the high school ranks.
As Merrick pointed out, there's a mutual, healthy respect between both sides. But the battle between the white lines is physical, through-the-whistle and always electric, no matter what the records are going into the game.
"There's kind of that 'little brother, big brother' type of mentality with the two schools," Merrick said. "Both sides are trying to impress because they're friends. Whether they admit it or not, a lot of our kids are friends with Westview kids. They socialize and follow each other on social media. There's that added piece. And everyone wants to play well when it's against your rival and have a good showing."
Sunset is now 4-0 in Metro and 4-2 overall. Westview is 2-2 in Metro and 2-4 overall. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. at Sunset High School on Friday.