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High school football: Top seed Richfield rallies past Manti for 3A state championship, its first since 1984

SHARE High school football: Top seed Richfield rallies past Manti for 3A state championship, its first since 1984
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Richfield High School celebrates their championship win against Manti High School in the 3A football state championship at Southern Utah University in Cedar City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Box score

The 39-year drought is over for Richfield High School.

The Wildcats’ offense exploded in the fourth quarter for 21 points to rally past Manti 27-21 in a thrilling 3A state championship game at Southern Utah University to capture the school’s first state title since 1984 and put the finishing touches on an undefeated season.

Not bad for a team that was projected to finish fourth in its region and wasn’t even in the coaches’ 3A preseason top five rankings.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience. I hope it’s not. It’s something we’ll remember forever. It’s just special. These kids are special, they stuck together, they bought into changes as changes came and they’re just humble kids,” said Richfield coach Eric Thorson, who took over as head coach this season.

Gage Yardley was the hero of the hour for Richfield, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 57 seconds remaining as he caught a slant route from quarterback Reggie Hafen and then raced 72 yards into the end zone for Richfield’s first lead since it was 7-0.

“Ever since we were little this is the year we’ve been waiting for. The juniors and the seniors combined class, we’ve always thought we had a chance to win,” said Yardley.

The junior Yardley finished the game with seven catches for 228 yards, while Hafen completed 24 of 39 passes for 404 yards and three TDs.

Thorson said he wasn’t surprised that Yardley had such a huge game, because Richfield’s offense is geared toward going toward the hot hand.

“We have so many bought-in players. We have about eight athletes and we find the one that’s on that night. Tonight it was Yardley. Last time we played Manti it was Malik Fautin. We have options when somebody is down, and tonight it was Yardley,” said Thorson.

Until the fourth quarter, Manti’s defense had done a great job of bending but not breaking as it led 14-7 with timely plays to halt Richfield drives.

Early in the fourth though, Richfield tied the game 14-14 as Hafen scored on a 4-yard TD as he dove toward the end zone and hit the pylon with the ball.

Manti, however, regained the lead with 5:22 left in the game after a huge defensive play set up the offense with great field position.

Manti defensive end Lincoln Alder batted the ball out of Hafen’s hand as he dropped back to pass, with Tiama Moe pouncing on the fumble at the 22 yard line.

Three plays later, Stone Mortensen hauled in a 15-yard TD pass from Maison Starkweather — his third TD pass of the game — as the Templars regained the lead, 21-14.

When these teams met in the regular season back in late September, Richfield won comfortably 28-7, but suddenly it trailed in a very tense situation with only 5:22 remaining in the game.

Thorson believes his players’ poise helped them overcome the nervy moments.

“It’s a very experienced, senior-led team, and so they don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what’s happening. They just worry about what they need to do,” said Thorson, “and I think that they just don’t get rocked.”

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Richfield High School celebrates their championship win against Manti High School in the 3A football state championship at Southern Utah University in Cedar City on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Richfield responded to Manti’s go-ahead score with a quick scoring drive of its own, driving 80 yards in eight plays with Kai Thomas capping the drive on a 15-yard TD reception from Hafen.

It didn’t take long for the Wildcat D’ to get another stop, which put the ball in Hafen’s hands with just over a minute remaining to work his magic. After two incompletions, though, he connected with Yardley on a third and 10 pass for the defining moment of the entire 3A season.

Richfield finished the game with 492 yards of total offense compared to 346 for Manti.

Both offenses started the game out great, with each taking their opening possession and marching straight down field inside the 10 yard line, but both drives stalled from there as each turned the ball over on downs.

Richfield’s offense was equally as productive on its second drive, but this time the Wildcats punched it into the end zone as Cort Moon hauled in a 19-yard TD pass from Hafen to cap a seven play, 86-yard drive for the 7-0 lead.

The momentum for Richfield’s offense halted from there the rest of the first half.

Conversely, Manti’s offense got things going after falling behind. In a span of 30 seconds, Starkweather connected with Mortensen on an 8-yard TD reception at the 8:44 mark of the second quarter and then Hunter Stevens on a 22-yard pass at the 8:14 mark to put the Templars ahead 14-7, a lead it maintained until early in the fourth quarter.