RENO-After passing for a total of minus two yards against Las Vegas last week in the state semifinal, no one expected Cimarron High School to even attempt a pass against McQueen during the NIAA/U.S. Bank 4A State football championship on Friday night.
But the Spartans shocked everyone - including head coach Greg Spencer - by scoring through the air on a crucial fourth-quarter play that gave Cimarron a late 14-7 lead and propelled the Spartans to a 21-7 victory over the Lancers.
The surprising aerial attack came with the Spartans, trailing the Lancers 7-6, facing a third-and-goal situation at the McQueen 5-yard line with just over seven minutes on the scoreboard. Everyone in packed Robb Stadium (estimated attendance 2,700) figured the Spartans would hand off once again to their star running back Kellen Marshall, who had already rushed for 100 yards.
Instead, quarterback Jacob Smeltzer caught the Lancer defense off guard and threw to wide receiver Brandon Paulo, who was running a quick out pattern and made a diving catch for the go-ahead TD.
"I was as surprised as everyone else that (Coach Ron) Smeltzer called that play," said Spencer, who coordinates the Spartan defense and leaves the play calling up to his offensive coordinator, Smeltzer, who just happens to be Jacob Smeltzer's father.
Paulo said he was just happy to be included in the Spartan offense, known for its tendency to keep the ball on the ground. During the season, Cimarron put the ball into the air just 83 times.
"I've been waiting the whole season for this," Paulo said. "We'd been working all week on putting in pass plays against McQueen."
Paulo also said that Cimarron wasn't affected by the chilly conditions in Reno on Friday, as the Spartans had prepared for the weather by practicing late at night during the week before the championship.
Far more impressive than the Spartans' newfound passing game was Cimarron's defense, which stifled McQueen during the second half. The Lancers ran only 13 plays in the half and failed to record a first down.
Even so, it looked like Chris Carr's 51-yard scamper on a screen pass in the second quarter might have been enough points for McQueen to win, as the Lancers held a 7-6 lead until Paulo's catch. But with Cimarron's defense refusing to allow McQueen any yardage on offense and getting good field position, it was inevitable that the Spartans would finally score.
"That was as perfect as half as we've played," Spencer said. "We kept the ball away from the McQueen offense for the entire second half."
On McQueen's ensuing possession following Paulo's catch, the Lancers had three consecutive incomplete passes and were forced to punt. Cimarron then took the ball 48 yards in six plays to wrap up the game on a 12-yard TD run by Kellen Marshall, who led all rushers with 126 yards on 30 carries.
"We knew they we going to be tough, especially if we got behind," said Carr, limited to 30 yards on 16 carries.
A rare McQueen mistake had led to Cimarron's first touchdown in the first quarter. On the Lancers' first possession, all-zone tight end Matt White fumbled a reception, turning the ball over to Cimarron on McQueen's own 10-yard line. Two plays later, Smeltzer snuck the ball in for a Spartan 6-0 lead.
But Cimarron missed the extra point, giving the Lancers hope that their one TD plus conversion would be enough to win.
It was the second consecutive 4A football championship for Cimarron (12-1), which defeated Elko in last year's championship. McQueen finished with an 11-2 record.