As the seconds ticked off on a dream unfulfilled, East’s football players watched the Leopards’ final gasp of a chance die on the cold turf of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
These were proud players who hadn’t experienced many losses in three glorious years playing for a two-time defending state champion often ranked among the best in the nation.
But try as they might in a desperate fourth quarter comeback attempt in the Class 6A championship game against another defending champion in Bingham, it wasn’t meant to be.
Some dealt with the loss quietly. Others looked angry. And quarterback Ben Ford, who missed last year’s state title game victory with an injury, sobbed, shouldering some of the blame.
“We have the best coaches in the state,” he said, trying to gather his emotions moments after walking off a football field for the last time as a high school player. “I don’t care if they won. We had the best game plan. We just didn’t execute it.”
Ford moved from quarterback to receiver late in the game when the Leopards fell behind by 20 points and needed to get away from their normal running attack and try to pass.
East coach Brandon Matich moved senior linebacker Nick Harris to quarterback because of his passing ability.
“He can throw,” the veteran coach said about Harris, whose 22-yard touchdown pass to Josh Nielsen with 9:08 to play cut Bingham’s lead to 13 and gave his team hope. “Josh Glad was our backup all year. Nick started this game last year, so his eyes weren’t too big. I felt better about playing him.”
Harris said his quarterbacking experience this season consisted of three snaps in the Leopards’ first game.
“I was a little bit surprised, but I thought they might go to me a little earlier,” he said. “I tried to play for the team. We never quit.”
And Matich only could echo that.
“I have tough kids,” he said. “That’s a good football team we lost to. I have nothing but respect for coach [John] Lambourne and his staff. They have very good kids. … We battled to the end. At the end of the day, they made fewer mistakes than we did. They capitalized on theirs and we didn’t.”
East’s football team could have played one classification lower where it has been the past few years, but Matich and his players wanted the challenge of playing against top teams such as Bingham, Lone Peak and Herriman.
But the successful coach said he didn’t find the higher classification any tougher. He said the Leopards had to deal with numerous injuries in the backfield. That included Charlie Vincent early Friday.
“That’s not an excuse,” Matich said. “It just makes things a little harder, and you have to coach a little harder. Every year is different. We have had kids who have had to step up. Look at Harris today.”
East had 277 total yards of offense compared to Bingham’s 181. But the Leopards could not overcome two lost fumbles and a late interception.