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Leopards edge Cyprus for final playoff spot

East nearly squanders 20-6 halftime lead

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The old adage of "win or go home" was never more appropriate than Thursday night at East High School. With Region 5's fifth and final playoff berth up for grabs, East and Cyprus knew their state tournament fortunes would be decided on a muddy football field.

In a game featuring playoff-type intensity, East made the clutch offensive and defensive plays when it needed them most in holding off Cyprus 34-27.

"We've had our share of adversity this year," said East coach Aaron Whitehead, whose team was marred in a four-game losing streak at one point this year. "To finish with two wins is nice."

It's more than nice — it means they'll advance to next week's state tournament to face Region 7 co-champ Orem. In a similar position last year, East upset undefeated Box Elder in the first round.

East nearly squandered a chance at duplicating last year's heroics. After building a 20-6 halftime lead, highlighted by a 74-yard touchdown pass from Nick Webb to Rick Blaylock on East's first play from scrimmage, the Leopards gave it all back just four minutes into the second half.

On the first play of the second half, East fumbled the ball on the center-quarterback exchange, and three plays later Cyprus' Henna Brown danced into the end zone for his second TD of the game.

On East's ensuing drive, Cyprus defensive lineman Poto Finau clobbered Webb as he dropped back to pass, forcing a fumble recovered by teammate Matt Hoagland. Just three plays later, Cyprus quarterback Tyler Sneddon lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone for Brandon Winter to tie the game at 20-20 with 8:28 remaining in the third quarter.

"We knew they'd be ready in the second half, we just didn't know they'd get us that quick," said Whitehead.

East was able to regroup offensively and defensively, and regained the lead five minutes later on a 53-yard touchdown run by speedy tailback Travis Cornell, his second of the game. The Leopards upped that lead to 34-20 early in the third quarter on a 12-yard TD run by Richard Johnson.

With its own playoff lives at stake, Cyprus marched down field and cut the deficit to 34-27 on Brown's third TD of the game with 3:26 remaining.

The Pirates wouldn't touch the ball again as East ran out the clock with three first downs.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com