DRAPER — Juan Diego recognized the importance of winning the Region 11 championship Friday afternoon.
Blessed with two home games to begin the 3A playoffs, the Soaring Eagle held off Juab 27-12 to advance to the 3A semifinals, where they will play Judge Memorial at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a highly anticipated matchup between the area's two Catholic schools.
Juan Diego's defense can take most of the credit for this victory, which improved the two-time defending 3A champion's record this season to 10-1. The Soaring Eagle held Juab to 22 second-half yards, and Dakota Cox returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown with 1:43 left that finally secured the win.
Until that play, however, Juab (a heavy underdog) was still in the game.
"They gave us all we wanted," said Juan Diego coach John Colosimo. "We were on the verge of taking control a couple of times, but couldn't do it. It was just nerves. We play not to screw up, and then we screw up."
Juan Diego took a 7-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter and led the rest of the way. The score was 20-6 when Juab rallied. Spencer McPherson intercepted a pass and returned it to Juan Diego's 2-yard line. McPherson also played quarterback on offense, and scored three plays later to cut the margin to 20-12.
A little while later, Juab got the ball back following a missed Juan Diego field goal. On the first play, McPherson's pass was intercepted by Cox and, for the second straight week, the sophomore linebacker rambled for a big score.
"I just knew what they were going to do," said Cox. "I just dropped back and the ball came right to me. I got it and just kept running. I really wanted to score."
The play deflated the Wasps, who finished the season with an 8-4 record. Coach Mike Bowring praised his players, his team's fans who made the trip and wondered what might have happened if not for the game-changing interception.
"The kids played really hard," he said. "They stopped our running game, but we were able to make a few plays with the pass. We wanted this one bad."
McPherson, the junior who was the third player to start at quarterback for Juab this season, completed 10 of 20 passes for 162 yards, and also made the big defensive play that gave Juab a chance.
But Juan Diego put the clamps on Juab's rushing attack. A week after piling up 223 yards against Union, the Wasps were held to minus-12 yards rushing against Juan Diego.
"Stopping the run is always our first goal," said Colosimo. "We wanted to make them one-dimensional and then take our chances with the pass."
John Dykster and Taran Wright made a few big receptions, but none after halftime.
For Juan Diego, Cody Berg rushed for 93 yards on 15 carries and Brock Garn had 61 yards on 11 attempts. Nathan Elorreaga completed 5 of 10 passes for 119 yards. He also ran for two scores, but was limited to just 15 yards on the ground.