Tigers’ heartbreaker: Grand Junction falls to Regis Jesuit on last-second TD pass

The Grand Junction Tigers watch in disbelief Friday night after Regis Jesuit quarterback Eystin Salum hit Connor McKay with a game-winning touchdown pass with eight seconds remaining in the Tigers’ 24-21 loss to the Raiders in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A football playoffs at Stocker Stadium.

Grand Junction quarterback Sean Rubalcaba gathers his emotions Friday night after the Tigers’ 24-21 loss to Regis Jesuit at Stocker Stadium.

Grand Junction High School’s football team won’t forget Friday night’s Class 5A quarterfinal game anytime soon.

As Regis Jesuit players erupted in joy, the Tigers were left trying to comprehend what just happened at Stocker Stadium.

The second-seeded Raiders (12-0) snatched a 24-21 victory with eight seconds remaining on a 37-yard touchdown catch by Connor McKay.

Regis quarterback Eystin Salum rolled out and flung the ball toward McKay. The 6-foot-3 receiver was able to wrestle the ball away from Tigers cornerback Tyler Winder for the go-ahead score.

“It’s our comeback and go, and Connor is a great athlete,” Salum said. “It was a great play by him.”

The touchdown completed an 82-yard drive that took 1 minute, 9 seconds.

“We didn’t get the stop in the end,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said. “But I’m so proud of our guys. Regis is a good football team and we battled them to the end.”

The Tigers not only competed with the much larger Regis team, but nearly knocked off the undefeated Raiders.

Grand Junction took the lead in the fourth quarter after Evan Frank missed a field goal. The Tigers trailed 17-14 with 6:53 remaining, but had the confidence to pull off another thrilling drive.

“These guys don’t quit,” Grand Junction quarterback Sean Rubalcaba said. “We were out to prove something and we weren’t going to give up easily.”

Tigers’ running back Jerreon Dennis had five rushes for 40 yards that set up Rubalcaba’s 31-yard touchdown. The Tigers took a 21-17 lead with Winder’s successful extra point with 4:17 to play.

Regis nearly gave the game away on the next series when linebacker Aaron Minnick chased down Salum and knocked the ball from his hand.

Evan Duff recovered the loose ball to give Grand Junction possession with 3:07 remaining.

The Tigers ran three plays, taking nearly two minutes off the clock, but couldn’t pick up a first down and were forced to punt with 1:17 left, which set up the dramatic final touchdown.

“They made more mistakes than we did, but we didn’t take advantage of it,” Owens said. “It’s a shame we didn’t come away with the victory.”

Grand Junction proved it wasn’t intimidated by Regis from the opening series. The Tigers stuffed Regis on fourth down, then took the ball 85 yards for the opening score of the game.

Rubalcaba scored on a 10-yard run to give Grand Junction a 7-0 lead.

“We were playing with confidence,” Rubalcaba said.

Regis responded by feeding the ball to running back Jordan Jungers, whose five carries helped the Raiders get to the Tigers’ 9-yard line.

The Raiders drive stalled when a James Diamanti sack forced the Raiders to settle for a Frank 31-yard field goal.

The Raiders began with great field position on their next drive after a 50-yard punt return by Casey Young. The Raiders finished the drive on fourth and six when 6-foot-6 receiver Drew Dyer bobbled a short throw from Salum, but managed to hold on for a 10-7 Regis lead midway through the second quarter.

Grand Junction took over with 3:08 remaining in the half after Chandon Rose intercepted a pass.

The Tigers went on a 93-yard drive that was capped with a 15-yard run by Rubalcaba, who dropped back to pass, saw nothing available, then weaved his way through Regis defenders. The score put the Tigers up 14-10 at halftime.

“That was huge,” Owens said. “Sean is one of the best players in the state and Regis knows he’s a special kid.”

Rubalcaba finished with 107 yards on 15 carries, and scored all three of the Tigers’ touchdowns.

“We proved we are one of the best teams in the state,” Rubalcaba said. “We are going to keep competing. People didn’t give us much of a chance and we wanted to prove them wrong.”

Dennis finished with 156 yards on 22 carries.

“This hurts, but it’s amazing for us to come out and have a season like this,” Dennis said. “We are hungry for next year and are going to move forward in our program.”

Regis advances to play Cherokee Trail in the semifinals. Regis escaped Grand Junction with a win, but the Raiders had a new-found respect for the Tigers.

“They came out and played a great game,” Salum said. “I have great respect for them.”


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