ARLINGTON — Seemingly no late-game scenario is too daunting for these comeback kids from Arlington.
Driving the length of the field for a last-second game-winning touchdown? Check.
Overcoming a two-score deficit with less than six minutes to play? No problem.
Getting the ball back by helping an opponent score, and then rallying for a touchdown and game-tying 2-point conversion before winning in overtime? You better believe it.
With a flair for the dramatic, the Arlington High School football team has rallied for three late-game comeback victories this season in the final minutes of regulation or overtime.
“It’s been crazy,” Eagles coach Greg Dailer said. “It’s been a wild ride. If you’re a fan, you can’t leave. You’ve gotta stay until the final buzzer.”
The late-game heroics were pivotal to Arlington finishing second in the Wesco 3A North and securing a trip to next week’s winner-to-state Week 10 playoffs. The Eagles (6-2 overall, 4-2 Wesco 3A North) face Shorewood on Friday in a league crossover game to determine seeding for Week 10.
Part of what makes Arlington comfortable in comeback situations is that the Eagles run an up-tempo spread attack as their primary offense. Instead of having to speed things up when trailing, Arlington simply operates at its usual fast pace.
“We’ve got a great no-huddle passing offense, so we’re built to have (the) hurry-up offense ready to roll,” Dailer said.
Spearheading the Eagles’ comeback machine has been the senior trio of quarterback Anthony Whitis and receivers Griffin Gardoski and Joey Stretch.
“We’ve got some great playmakers on the outside,” Dailer said, “and the guy pulling the trigger is doing a great job.”
Perhaps most important to Arlington’s late-game success is the team’s unwavering belief.
“I don’t think any of the kids on the field have any doubt that we’re going to win the game,” Whitis said. “We all just look at each other and we’re like, ‘Here we are again.’ It’s kind of one of those things like, ‘OK, we’ve done it before. Let’s go do it again.’”
The Eagles began the season in dramatic fashion, beating Mariner on a game-winning touchdown pass from Whitis to Gardoski with 1 second remaining.
It capped a winning drive that spanned 81 yards in just under 90 seconds, keyed by a 32-yard pass from Whitis to Stretch that moved the ball to the 5-yard line with 9 seconds to play. Whitis then stopped the clock with a spike and lofted a pass to the end zone for the 6-foot-3 Gardoski, who hauled in the game-winner to lift Arlington to a 27-23 non-league victory.
“Griffin’s a big body,” said Whitis, who’s been playing with Gardoski since youth football. “If you put it up in the air, there’s not a lot of kids that can size up (with) him and run down the field as quick as he can. So you get the ball out for him, and he’s going to do the rest.”
The Eagles faced another fourth-quarter deficit three weeks later, trailing Ferndale 34-22 with less than six minutes remaining. That was plenty of time for Whitis, who led Arlington’s quick-strike attack on back-to-back touchdown drives.
“We knew we had plenty of time,” Stretch said. “It seems kind of unrealistic, but we know what our offense can do, and we did that.”
On the first drive, Whitis marched the Eagles 65 yards in just six plays, capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass to Stretch that made it a five-point game with 4:29 remaining.
Then after Arlington’s defense forced a key three-and-out, the Eagles needed just two plays to get back into the end zone. Whitis connected with Gardoski for a 41-yard catch-and-run, then sacrificed his body at the goal line to score the eventual game-winner on a 5-yard quarterback keeper with 2:49 remaining.
“Our guys (have) a great attitude,” Dailer said. “We get down two scores with five minutes to go and you would never know. The guys on the sideline are all excited and ready to go, and we always think we have a chance to win.”
The craziest comeback of the season came three weeks ago in a key Wesco 3A North clash against then-unbeaten Oak Harbor.
With less than two minutes remaining, the Wildcats led 35-34 and had the ball inside the Arlington 10-yard line. Out of timeouts, the Eagles tried to let Oak Harbor score in an effort to give the ball back to their offense. However, the Wildcats’ ball carrier purposely went down at the 6-yard line to keep the clock running.
So, with Oak Harbor employing a similar clock-chewing strategy on the next play, the Eagles took matters into their own hands. Arlington’s defense held up running back Aaron Martinez to keep him from going to the ground, and then pushed him into the end zone for a Wildcats touchdown.
“We celebrated like we scored,” Dailer said. “We were just excited to get the ball back.”
The ensuing extra point extended the Wildcats’ lead to 42-34 with 1:09 remaining, but the touchdown meant Arlington’s big-play offense would have one more chance.
“Forcing someone to score on us is kind of weird,” Stretch said. “Even the crowd was like, ‘What? We’re celebrating an (opposing) touchdown?’ That shows confidence in our offense. … We knew we were going to go down and score.”
The Eagles took full advantage of the opportunity, mounting an 80-yard touchdown drive on just four plays and a penalty. One play after Stretch got behind the secondary for a 47-yard reception from Whitis, Gardoski hauled in a 7-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 42-40 with 27 seconds remaining.
“Our offensive weapons are unbelievable,” Dailer said. “With Anthony at the helm, we can make so much happen. (Scoring in) 42 seconds is not a problem for us.”
On the ensuing 2-point attempt, Whitis lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone and the 5-foot-10 Stretch out-fought the defender for the game-tying grab.
“He’s not the size that Griffin is, but he’s still one of those kids that I feel like I can put up the ball and he’s going to make a play,” Whitis said. “… He just went and ripped that ball out. What else can you ask of a receiver than to make a play like that?”
Arlington’s defense then came up with a fourth-down stop on Oak Harbor’s overtime possession, giving the ball back to Whitis & Co. The senior quarterback followed with a game-winning 22-yard touchdown pass to Gardoski, lifting the Eagles to a 48-42 overtime victory and sending their sideline into a frenzy.
“It’s one of those things that’s just indescribable,” Whitis said.
Gardoski caught five touchdown passes in the overtime win and added a pair of 2-point conversion receptions.
“We’ve got four (receivers) across the board that we can get the ball to to make plays, but definitely Griffin and Joey have made the biggest plays this year,” Dailer said. “… Those are the guys we go to when the game’s on the line.”
And at the center of all the late-game heroics is Whitis.
“He’s a pressure player,” Dailer said. “He lives for those moments and doesn’t back down from them. … He’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure we get into the end zone.”
“He’s very positive and he’s a really easy guy to get along with,” Gardoski said. “So when we have that as our leader on the field, it makes it a lot easier. We’re all calm.”
Stretch perhaps put it best: “He’s straight clutch.”
Arlington players also pointed to various up-tempo practice drills as a factor in the team’s comeback success. And on top of that, every late-game rally provides the Eagles with even more experience and confidence going forward.
“There’s not a second that we doubt that we can’t do it,” Stretch said. “We’ve been together for such a long time, and we know what to do (in) certain situations.”