PUYALLUP — J.T. Tuimoloau felt like he was bobbling the state football championship trophy Saturday afternoon.
His Eastside Catholic Crusaders were down a touchdown with fewer than 90 seconds remaining in the title game against top-seeded O’Dea at Sparks Stadium. And the junior was in position to make the needed score.
But Fighting Irish defensive back Cooper Mathers, a 6-foot-3 senior, had the 6-4, 245-pound Tuimoloau covered like a blanket. Mathers tipped the 29-yard pass from Eastside quarterback Kobe Muasau and Tuimoloau struggled to get his right hand on the ball.
Another bobble and Tuimoloau’s eyes widened.
“I saw it up in the air,” Tuimoloau said of the football and the season. “I told myself, if we’re going to win, I’ve got to catch this one.”
He did, and teammate Peter Taoipu added a score off a fumble recovery moments later to cement a 20-12 win and a Class 3A state championship for Eastside. It’s the Crusaders’ second consecutive football title and fourth in the past six years.
Eastside’s win also avenges a 28-6 loss to O’Dea in their Metro League meeting in October.
“I’m still shocked,” said Tuimoloau, a five-star recruit and the No. 1 junior prospect in the nation. “I don’t even know how I made the catch. I just went for it and came down with it. … I’m so relieved.”
The Fighting Irish took a brief 12-7 lead with a 96-yard touchdown pass to Mathers from junior quarterback Milton Hopkins Jr. with 2:34 left in the game. O’Dea missed the two-point conversion as Hopkins was sacked by Tuimoloau.
Muasau, who moved to Washington from Hawaii in May, threw passes to seniors Sam Adams II (19 yards), Gee Scott Jr. (15 yards) and rushed four yards to set up the go-ahead score to Tuimoloau.
Muasau completed 18 of his 30 passes for 228 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“There was a lot of emotion there the last five minutes of the game,” O’Dea coach Monte Kohler said.
The game was scoreless after the opening quarter, but there was a combined 25 points in the closing 5:44.
“I even said to my coaches that maybe we scored too quick on that one,” Kohler continued of Mathers’ touchdown drive that took 17 seconds off the clock. “But I’m proud of the effort of our kids.”
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association played its state championship games outside the Tacoma Dome for the first time since 1995. The move from holding all six title games at the Tacoma Dome was because of the cost in leasing the facility.
Kicking off in rainy conditions, the second-seeded Crusaders (12-1) had a fumble, sack, incomplete pass and interception end their early drives into scoring position. The players were visibly upset when a 10-play drive, including a 32-yard pass from Muasau to Scott, ended when the QB was sacked at the 11-yard line on fourth down.
O’Dea (12-1) couldn’t get its running game going either. With 8:11 remaining in the opening half, the Fighting Irish had six yards of total offense. They finished with 262.
Eastside was able to get its offense clicking after O’Dea turned the ball over on downs late in the second quarter. A 10-play, 52-yard drive was capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass from Muasau to senior Gio Ursino with 3:31 left in the half.
The Irish attempted a 34-yard field goal on its ensuing possession with 30 seconds remaining but missed wide right. Eastside took a 7-0 lead into the break.
“During halftime, we had a game-plan to adjust because O’Dea is a second-half team,” Muasau said. “I was telling the boys to never be satisfied. The game is not done.
“O’Dea, they adjusted and whatever box they had, they just added more guys and it was hard for us to run the ball down their throat. But everybody was together and the last moments were all guts. This feels great.”
The Irish finally got in the end zone on a 7-yard run from sophomore K’Son Mika with 5:44 on the clock in the fourth quarter. But the extra point failed, leaving O’Dea down 7-6.
“This was a hell of a ride,” said Mika, who finished with 94 yards on 27 carries. “Things just didn’t come through.”
Taoipu picking up a Hopkins fumble for the last score on a 23-yard return was a poetic finish. His mother, who suffered a stroke in July, died Thanksgiving night and the team dedicated the semifinal win to his family.
“It’s a storybook ending,” Eastside coach Dominic Daste said. “I’ve cried more in the last two weeks than I think I have in the last 10 years. This is really special.”