High school football
Leavens leads Marana to 1st playoff win since 1983
Connor Leavens couldn’t have dreamed it up any better, not in a million years.
Marana High School’s senior quarterback drove his team down the field in the final minutes of a tied game and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 29.9 seconds to play, giving the seventh-seeded Tigers a dramatic 28-21 win over No. 10 Glendale Kellis. It was Marana's first postseason victory since 1983.
“I don’t know if you could have written that up better in the books,” Leavens said. “Tie game, one minute left, we go down and score. That’s a quarterback’s dream right there and we made it happen.”
Now Marana, which is in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, moves on to play at second-seeded Gilbert Williams Field next Thursday, in the 5A state quarterfinals. The Tigers were just one of five local winners in Friday’s first-round action, with top-seeded Cienega and No. 3 Ironwood Ridge also advancing on the opposite side of the 5A bracket. Meawhile, No. 4 Salpointe Catholic and No. 6 Catalina Foothills moved on to the 4A state quarterfinals with a pair of close wins.
But its safe to say that nobody else in town had the late-game drama that Marana had on Friday night, to snap a skid of six straight postseason losses.
“Our senior group, we’ve all been playing together since we were six years old so we didn’t expect anything less,” said B.J. McDaniel, who finished with seven catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. “To come out here and do this, it’s a dream come true. That’s the only way to describe it because this is something we’ve talked about. It’s just a dream come true.”
The Tigers (9-2) jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter after Leavens connected with Antonio Reyes and McDaniel for touchdown passes. Kellis put together a quick scoring drive to open the second half but Leavens responded by hitting senior Dominic Gehr for a 12-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-7
That score held until early in the fourth quarter. Kellis forced a punt and needed just four plays to make it a one-possession game, when senior running back Damien Campbell found an opening for a 37-yard touchdown run with 8:29 remaining.
After an exchange of interceptions, Marana ended up punting again and this time, the Cougars needed just three plays to find the end zone. Junior wide receiver Josiah Bailey tied the game at 21 when he got behind the defense for a 60-yard touchdown catch with 3:08 left in the fourth.
Rather than panic, the Tigers just held it together.
Leavens connected with McDaniel for a first down on the second play of the drive and then a pass interference call gave the Tigers a first down at the Kellis 30. One snap later, Leavens sprinted up Marana’s sideline for a 20-yard gain. And finally, facing a third and goal, Leavens scored on a 5-yard quarterback keeper to put his team up 28-21 in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
“You can only dream about these types of things until they happen,” Leavens said. “It happened tonight and that’s just another brick on the wall for us. We get one night to celebrate, we’ve got to take it all in and do it again tomorrow.”
Kellis had just enough time to attempt a couple desperation passes, only to have junior Andrew Smith step in the way of the final one for this third interception of the night.
Fifth-year coach Andy Litten didn’t have to think long about where Friday’s win ranks in Marana’s history. Without a doubt, this at least marks the biggest victory of his career.
"We talk about it to the kids, when everybody is rowing on the same direction, pretty special things happen," Litten said. "That really happened tonight because our community has been working toward this goal for five years, since I've been a part of it, and it's pretty cool to see."
Leavens can lead Marana further into uncharted territory next week, as the Tigers try to win 10 games for the first time since going 11-0 and winning a state title in 1968. He and his fellow seniors all came into the program with the goal of getting it back to those ways.
“We wanted to come here to change the culture and make a statement and do something different, that nobody else has some before,” Leavens said.” That’s exactly what we did.”