AZTEC — Piedra Vista nearly fumbled a game away to Aztec on Friday night, but the Panthers did just enough to survive.
No. 7 Piedra Vista cruised to a 27-7 halftime lead at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium in Aztec against the No. 14 Tigers. But the Panthers turned the ball over seven times to allow Aztec to hang in the game. Aztec scored 14 fourth-quarter points but came up just short of a comeback as the Tigers fell to the Panthers 27-21.
"I don't know how we did it, but we did. Adversity kept hitting, but we found a way out," said PV head coach Jared Howell. "We stacked mistakes one on top of another. At the end of the season, it will still say 'W' next to this game. I am upset, no doubt, but a win is a win."
The win sets up Piedra Vista (7-2 overall, 2-0 District 1-4A) for a clash with Farmington High (8-1, 2-0) in a game that will decide the district champion.
"The district championship comes down to the town of Farmington. It will be the biggest game either one of these teams have played in during these kids' era. I guarantee it," Howell said. "We will see who rises to the top."
Piedra Vista had problems from the opening play of the game on Friday night in Aztec. The Panthers fumbled the ball during a handoff exchange, and Aztec's Taylor Elwood fell on the ball for the first of his two fumble recoveries in the game. Aztec (3-6, 0-2) marched 56 yards down the field and capped off a 10-play drive with a two-yard touchdown run by Ryneal Lewis-Adams to take a 7-0 lead.
PV answered on its next possession as the Panthers went 73 yards in 15 plays, the last a 12-yard touchdown run by Storm Avendano that tied the game 7-7.
Following an Aztec punt, the Panthers needed just five plays to go 68 yards for another touchdown as senior quarterback Isaiah Valdez hit Beau Clafton with a perfectly thrown deep ball for a 51-yard touchdown.
PV led 13-7 when Aztec fumbled on its next possession. Aaron Rino scooped up the fumble and ran it back more than 70 yards for another Panthers touchdown that gave PV a 21-7 lead following a successful two-point conversion.
Aztec running back Ryneal Lewis-Adams was stripped on the Tigers' next drive. Piedra Vista's Ryan Stewart fell on the loose ball to give it back to the Panthers. Two plays later, Valdez was in the end zone after a 56-yard touchdown run that gave PV a 27-7 lead with five minutes and 50 seconds to play in the second quarter.
It appeared the Panthers would run away with the game, but PV never scored again.
"Honestly, we came out of halftime with no intensity," Valdez said. "It was 27-7, and we thought the game was over. That will get us beat next week against Farmington, or anyone else in the state. We have to come out and play all four quarters."
The two teams exchanged punts the entire third quarter, and a Valdez fumble in the fourth quarter recovered by Aztec's Cole Epley helped set up a Tigers touchdown. Aztec quarterback Marcus Crawford hit Dylan Sutherland for a four-yard touchdown to cut PV's lead to 27-14 with 8:41 remaining in the game.
PV then fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Aztec took over on the PV 28-yard line. But Aztec turned the ball over on downs after an errant snap and a sack sent the Tigers backward. But PV's fumbling woes didn't end there as another PV fumble was recovered by Aztec's Jake Harris.
With just 3:43 left in the game, Aztec scored again when Lewis-Adams found the end zone on a one-yard run for his second touchdown of the game.
Aztec's defense couldn't get the ball back to the offense fast enough, and the Tigers were unable to score with just 30 seconds remaining and a long field separating them from the end zone.
The loss likely means the Tigers won't make the playoff this season.
"Our guys are battling. They really are. We are trying to finish the season the right way," said Aztec head coach Matt Steinfeldt. "We are competitive. We are just making a lot of mistakes. It was a sloppy game. Both of us put the ball on the ground too often, but our boys are competing, and that is all we can ask for."
The loss sent Aztec to 0-4 in home games this season.
"We don't practice here. This is an away game for us," Steinfeldt said. "Personally, I don't get a lot out of playing here. We get on a bus, and we go into a locker room that isn't ours. It is an away game in many ways, and there is not a lot of value to it."
Steinfeldt said the Tigers will try to finish the season on a high note next week at Kirtland Central (6-3, 0-2). Piedra Vista will focus on cleaning up mistakes and preparing for a Farmington team that boasts one of the state's top defenses.
"I believe 100 percent that we will make the corrections. I believe in my kids," Howell said. "I wouldn't trade them for anybody else. We are a family, and we will win as a family."John Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.