BAY ST. LOUIS — Ian Rioz returned a game-winning kickoff 67 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the game to give the St. Stanislaus Rock-a-chaws (9-1) a 23-20 victory over Crystal Springs (3-7) in the first round of the 3A state playoffs on Friday.
Crystal Springs had just put together a nine-play, 80-yard drive with just under two minutes to play, culminating with a 21-yard touchdown pass to go up 18-17. A successful 2-point conversion gave the visitors a 20-17 lead with only seven ticks remaining on the game clock.
But the Tigers made one critical mistake: they kicked a pop-up kick directly to Rioz near his own 33-yard line. From there, he did what he had been doing all season. He shook off defenders with jolts and pauses, and then broke past the second and third tiers of defenders and sprinted to the end zone for the score for an almost unbelievable ending to the game.
“I was thinking, maybe if they don’t kick it to Ian, we just might kind of fair catch it, and try to get it into his hands one more time,” said Rock-a-chaws coach Tim Lala. “They kicked into the air to him, and he went and made a play to keep us alive one more week.
“You know that anytime he gets his hands on the ball, he’s got a shot,” said Lala. “There was never a question in my mind that he would be on the field (for the kickoff). But whether or not we would be able to get the ball in his hands was a different story.
“We knew all week they were going to be a challenge for us,” said Lala of Crystal Springs, “I’m really proud of our guys, especially in that last gut punch. Truly like never giving up, and having the grit to fight through.”
Rioz led the Rocks’ offensive attack in the first half with 149 rushing yards, including a 5-yard rushing touchdown. He also got the Rocks on the scoreboard with a 39-yard scoring toss to Isaiah Haynes. The Rocks led 14-6 at halftime, and that margin would hold up after three quarters of play.
Crystal Springs would score on the first play of the fourth quarter, capping a 75-yard 12-play drive with a two-yard rush. The Rocks’ defense denied them on their 2-point conversion attempt, keeping the lead at 14-12.
Evan Noel would extend the Rocks’ lead with a 32-yard field goal with 1:53 remaining on the game clock, giving them a 17-12 lead.
The Rock’s ensuing kickoff went into the end zone, so Crystal Springs would start at their own 20-yard line.
Crystal Springs quarterback Za’Bauri Chandler then went to work, completing passes of 9, 13 and 14 yards before tossing a 14-yard touchdown pass to give the Tigers the lead with seven seconds left. The drive was also boosted by a 15-yard pass interference call, setting the stage for the exciting and climactic ending by Rioz.
Rioz finished the game with 213 all-purpose yards: 174 rushing yards and a 67-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He also completed 7 of ten passes for 97 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
St. Stanislaus will play at home next Friday.