RENO – Many years of heartache. Many years of frustration. Many years spent as the doormat to the rest of the division.
All of those many memories — painful and gut-wrenching sprinkles with some hope — of watching Greenwave football through nearly four decades with no state title to display can be kicked the curb for now and possibly years to come.
Fallon is now the state champion of the Division I-A football world after defeating Moapa Valley for the second time in three years in the playoffs.
Despite some lapses on defense, Fallon came through when it needed to and clawed out a 34-27 victory Saturday at Reno High School to give the school its first state football title since 1978 and first fall sports title since 2000 when the volleyball team won back-to-back championships. The 1978 football championship was also the last time a boys fall team captured the crown.
“Our kids just hung with it. They’ve showed a lot of resiliency all year,” said Fallon coach Brooke Hill, who quarterbacked the Greenwave in the 1980s before coming into coach last decade. “They were able to fight through some adversity. (Moapa Valley) kind of took back some momentum in the second quarter and the start of the third quarter. Our kids just didn’t give up. They kept battling.”
And it wasn’t just one phase — or one star athlete — that aided in the return of the state championship to the Lahontan Valley, but the victory sends out the 25-man senior class out in style.
“It’s been our goal since the beginning of the season,” said Johnny Mayo, a senior who was one of 17 seniors to win six-straight SYFL championships. “It’s been our goal since we were 6, 7, 8 years old. Right now, I think we’re all on top of the world.”
Fallon raced out to an early two-touchdown lead thanks to the passing game but then resorted to the ground attack in the second half when Moapa Valley pressed coverage. The defense, which had a few lapses, including surrendering four plays of at least 30 yards, clamped down in the fourth quarter when it mattered most. A huge interception from Brock Uptain with 2 minutes left in the game preceded the game-ending takeaway when lineman T.J. Mauga intercepted a last-ditch lateral near midfield.
The defense, which was the hallmark of this Greenwave team in their second attempt in three years of winning a state title, helped seal Fallon’s win.
“The kids do what they do. They made adjustments, especially in that second half,” Hill said. “That’s been what we’ve done all year long. We’ve made adjustments in the game and we executed that very well.”
After Fallon surrendered the ball with 13 seconds left in the game, Moapa Valley had one last chance to force the game into overtime. With a five-receiver set, quarterback Nate Cox executed a draw for a 14-yard gain and then hooked up with Jacob Leavitt with no time left. Leavitt, though, tried to lateral but instead found Mauga, who went down with the ball faster than the average lineman.
“Catch it, catch it, catch it,” Mauga kept telling himself when he saw the ball in the air. “Don’t worry about running, just get down and end the game right there.”
Fallon senior quarterback Connor Richardson had the hot hand to open the game, but when Fallon’s pistol offense began to misfiring, the Greenwave benefited from their running game to plow through the Pirates’ line. Junior Cade Vercellotti posted a team-high 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns to complement Richardson, who finished with 24 of 37 completions for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Vercellotti benefited from Richardson’s arm in catching two passes for 19 yards, including 5 yards on the receiving end of a trick lateral in the second quarter.
“What a way to go out,” Richardson said. “I wouldn’t settle for nothing less than this. We’ve worked so hard during the offseason, summer and spring ball in May. We’ve worked so hard and there’s no better feeling than this right now. This is what our goal was.”
Fallon’s receiving corps of seniors Aaron and Evan Bitter and juniors Conner Nelson and Uptain frustrated the Moapa Valley secondary, especially in the first half when Richardson amassed 208 passing yards. Nelson led the team with seven grabs for 94 yards and two touchdowns, while Aaron Bitter had four for 81 yards and Uptain had seven for 68 yards. Evan Bitter finished with four receptions for 18 yards.
After Fallon broke a 27-all tie after Vercellotti plowed through the trenches for a 5-yard score with 11:46 left in the fourth quarter, the Greenwave went to work in shutting down the Pirates. Fallon forced a three-and-out before the offense burned almost six minutes off the clock, giving Moapa Valley time to try to tie the game and send into overtime.
An intentional grounding penalty backed up the Pirates to their 32-yard line as they faced a fourth-and-28 with 2:37 left in the game. Cox found Derek Cope in front of the team’s bench to give Moapa Valley a first down to extend the potential game-tying drive. Uptain, though, read Cox and jumped in front to nab an interception in front of the Fallon sideline before racing down the field for a 25-yard return.
“Nothing’s been bigger than that in my life,” Uptain said of the interception. “I got a good drop and saw the quarterback looking at the receiver and he overthrew it a little bit. I was just trying to think let’s go for a touchdown.”
The Greenwave nearly clinched the win with the offense on the field, coming 3 yards away from a first down after the Pirates jumped offsides on back-to-back hard counts from Richardson.
Cox finished the game 7 of 18 for 128 yards and one touchdown, R.J. Hubert ran for 124 yards on 10 carries for two touchdowns and Sterling Simmons finished with 97 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Cope caught four passes for 96 yards and one touchdown. Hubert, the player of the year in 2014, left the game late in the fourth quarter and didn’t return.
After a quick exit on the first series of the game, Fallon put together an 11-play drive that benefited from Richardson’s accurate arm. Richardson hooked up with three different receivers to move Fallon into Moapa Valley territory before Vercellotti converted his fifth carry of the series for a 1-yard touchdown run to give Fallon a 6-0 lead with 2:15 left in the first quarter.
Senior Riley Williams stripped Hubert, the star wide receiver and safety who will attend Utah next year, on the Pirates’ second play of the ensuing series and Fallon made the Overton school pay. Fallon benefited from two penalties, Richardson converted a third-and-14 to Nelson and then found him again in the end zone in double coverage for a 13-0 advantage at 10:46 in the second quarter.
Just like Fallon coming back from a two-touchdown deficit in the first half last week in the semifinal game against Chaprarral, Cox avoided a sack on the series’ first play before Hubert took the toss down the right sideline and scampered for a 90-yard touchdown run, cutting the deficit to 13-6 only 30 seconds after Fallon’s score.
Two huge third-down conversions kept a drive alive for Greenwave, who again benefited from another series of Moapa Valley penalties. The Pirates committed 17 penalties, including three unsportsmanlike conduct fouls.
On third-and-4 on Moapa Valley’s 21-yard line, Richardson threw a screen pass to Uptain for a 5-yard gain. Three plays later — and after a holding call against Fallon — Richardson connected with Aaron Bitter, who then flipped to Vercellotti, taking the ball down to the 5-yard line. Richardson rolled out to the right side and found Nelson in the end zone for the second time to give Fallon a 19-6 lead with 5:46 left in the first half.
Richardson’s strong streak to open the game came to a halt when Cope intercepted an underthrown pass. After a pass interference call against Fallon, the Pirates went to the ground with four-straight plays as Hubert’s 2-yard score cut Fallon’s lead to 19-13 with 33 seconds left.
The Pirates, though, nearly tied the game before the half after blocking Riley Williams’ punt, but Uptain broke up Cox’s pass on the final play.
“Coach told us that we’re a good enough team to be in the lead at halftime and then said at halftime, ‘Didn’t I say that we would be in the lead?’” Vercellotti said about Fallon maintaining its confidence at the break. “We had some motivational speeches because of the senior class.”
Moapa Valley, though, scored on the first play of the third quarter when Cox’s read-option toss to Sterling Simmons down the right sideline for 55 yards gave the Pirates its first lead of the game at 20-19 ... 18 seconds into the game.
Vercellotti’s 3-yard plunge capped off a 10-play, 70-yard drive midway in the quarter after Fallon stalled in its first series of the second half. Ahead 27-20, Fallon saw Moapa Valley come back to tie the game at 27 after Cox found Cope open for a 31-yard touchdown completion with 1:57 left in the quarter.
Vercellotti’s 32-yard kick return set up Fallon for the eventual game-winning touchdown. The junior running back helped open the drive with 17 yards on two carries before scoring the deciding touchdown.
“It’s really, really amazing,” Mayo said. “It’s something that we haven’t experienced in nearly 40 years in Fallon. It’s one of the best team wins I’ve been a part of.”