East senior Taylor Swenson grew up attending East-Highland football games, and spent countless hours imagining how his senior-year game would go against the Rams.
Imagine how sweet it was for him to make some game-changing plays in one of the state's best rivalry games.
Swenson caught a touchdown pass, recorded an interception, and defensed two passes near the end zone in the final minute of the game to help the Leopards to a hard-fought 14-7 win over the Rams in the Region 6 opener for both teams on Friday night.
"It means everything," Swenson said. "I looked up to this game my whole life. Ever since I was little, I'd think of my senior year playing Highland. It's a big rivalry. It's exciting. It feels good."
It also felt great to the dozens of East fans who stormed the field as soon as quarterback Danny Tuai took the game's final snap in the victory formation. The celebration probably left a sour taste in the mouths of the Rams, but you can't really blame the East fans. Highland has owned East in the rivalry for many years, but the Leopards may be turning the tide, as they recorded their second consecutive win in the series.
It didn't look like that was going to happen early in the game. The Rams' running game looked unstoppable in its first two drives,
as they gained 100 yards on their first 15 rushes. The last rushing play in the sequence was a 7-yard touchdown run by Bridger Walzer that put the Rams up 7-0.
East's offense wasn't faring much better. The Leopards' first six plays from scrimmage went for losses, and they accumulated minus-33 yards of offense in the first quarter.
"We looked like dog meat, didn't we," said first-year East coach Larry Eldracher.
That changed shortly after East stopped Highland on a fourth-and-short situation near midfield early in the second quarter. Junior running back Edward Fakahafua added some spark to the team's offense, and the Leopards drove 49 yards for a score. Tuai finished off the drive by completing a 25-yard touchdown strike to Swenson to tie the game.
Tuai put East in control on the first play of the second half. He ran a quarterback counter out of the shotgun formation, and split defenders down the middle of the field. He scored on a 65-yard run, and it was huge because the Leopards had just 21 yards of offense prior to the play.
"One play turned it around," Eldracher said.
Tuai looked to be in danger of being caught by Highland's Nick Orchard, but he found another gear while sprinting down the west sideline.
"I just saw an open hole," Tuai said. "I wasn't expecting to go all the way. The line did a good job, and we executed. I got lucky enough to score."
Highland had the ball in East territory on three separate possessions in the fourth quarter, but couldn't cash in. The first drive stalled when the Rams were flagged for a procedure penalty on a fourth down. East linebacker Jacob Morrison recovered a fumble on the Leopards' 25-yard line with 1:49 left in the game to end Highland's second chance. The Rams' final drive ended when East forced three straight incompletions, with Swenson and Tuai playing solid defense on the plays.
East's win wasn't a thing of beauty, but Eldracher said he'll take a win any way he can get one over Highland.
"Highland is a hard-hitting, rock 'em, sock 'em, well-coached team," Eldracher said. "I think our defense played with a lot of heart.