TACOMA — The 1A clash of the titans turned out to be everything it was billed to be Saturday afternoon in the Tacoma Dome, going right down to the last man standing.
Defense does in fact win championships.
Eastern Washington commit Simon Burkett of Meridian sent the final pass of the afternoon high and deep into the end zone with hopes for some kind of Aaron Rodgers-like result. Royal senior Corbin Christensen tracked it like Guillermo Heredia chasing down a ball into the gap at Safeco Field. The 6-foot-3 senior, who was a part of the previous two state championships, broke up the pass as time ran out.
With the ball safely on the ground, the Knights (14-0) were finally able to start their celebration with a 33-27 victory over previously unbeaten Meridian (13-1) for their third consecutive 1A state championship and 41st consecutive victory dating back to the 2014 state quarterfinals.
With the victory, Royal became the seventh school in Washington state history to win three or more consecutive WIAA titles at the same level, and just the second 1A school to do it.
“This is a three-peat and it’s good to go out on a win in my last game. Burkett is a heck of a player. He came out and put on a show. He tore us up a lot, but we responded in the end,” said Christensen, who caught a touchdown and passed for one. “It was the best game in the four years I’ve been here. It was so fun.”
Royal coach Wiley Allred has seen a few tight games in his 19 years of coaching, but Saturday’s championship was one for the ages and his Knights snapped Meridian’s 13-game win streak to get to the promised land one more time.
“Everything was changing so fast at the end of the game. I thought if we didn’t the first down, I’d leave it on our defense,” said Allred (217-26), who passed longtime coach Frank Naish for 15th-most all-time winning percentage (89.3) for Washington state coaches with 200-plus victories. “It’s stressful. The kids showed some guts and it’s great right now. But I’m glad it’s over.”
Burkett was the guy when it came to Meridian’s offense. He finished the day completing 22-of-47 for 305 yards, and either threw for or ran in each of the team’s touchdowns. His 10-yard run to start the fourth quarter tied the game at 27-27. Meridian rolled into town on a 13-game winning streak and played some defense of its own, shutting down Royal’s seven-play drive on fourth-and-goal on the 10 to take over on downs with just under seven minutes remaining.
But then the Royal defense came alive. On the Trojans ensuing possession, Alonso Hernandez sacked Burkett for an 8-yard loss and Jack Diaz sacked him again and the Knights took over on downs.
“We started with six-man pressure and finally changed to five and had a spy,” said Allred, who has coached Royal to seven of its eight state championships.
Sawyer Jenks, who was 16-of-33 for 180 yards and a touchdown, led the Knights for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Hernandez carried the rock and the team as Royal pounded the ball inside, daring the Trojans to try and stop the 5-10, 190-pound junior. Hernandez, who carried 24 times for 143 yards and three touchdowns, gave Royal its final lead on a 7-yard burst with 2:44 left.
But with Burkett’s arm and Bryce VandenHaak's ability to torch the Knights’ back end, no lead was safe.
“He’s a really good quarterback and he’s headed to Eastern for a reason,” said cornerback Angel Farias, who had an interception in the third quarter. “We were counting on everybody to stop him. Lineman had to put pressure on. We had to cover, sometimes one-on-one. Three state championships is great, but our focus was to just win one more.”
The defense came up large one more time, protecting a six-point lead with 2:23. Hernandez put a big hit on Burkett trying to run for the first down and Jack Diaz came up with the fumble in what looked like the dagger.
But the Trojans made one more defensive stand, setting up the late drama. With 19 seconds remaining and possession on their own 10, Burkett found a streaking Dawson Logan, who had 114 yards on just four catches, at midfield for one more go at the end zone with seven seconds.
The Royal three-peat went right to the wire and their 41st win of the season was the sweetest.
Meridian 0 13 8 6 - 27
Royal 7 14 8 6 - 33
R - Corbin Christensen 10 pass from Sawyer Jenks (Osvaldo Guerrero kick)
M - Bryce VanderHaak 3 pass from Simon Burkett (kick fails)
R - Angel Farias 44 pass from Corbin Christensen (Guerrero kick)
M - Burkett 15 run (kick fails)
R - Alonso Hernandez 2 run (Guerrero kick)
M - Dawson Logan 55 pass from Burkett (Lukas Hemenway pass from Burkett)
R - Hernandez 2 run (kick fails)
M - Burkett 10 run (kick fails)
R - Hernandez 7 run (kick fails)