SALT LAKE CITY — It was not the ending the Spanish Fork football team dreamed about, but it was the ride they started working for way back in the hot, sweaty agony of two-a-days.
"I felt like we were in (the game) the whole time," said wide receiver Luigy Paulino, who caught three touchdown passes in the Dons' 38-35 loss to Hurricane in the 3A semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday night. "I felt like we came out and competed. The score shows it — 38-35. That's nothing to be ashamed of."
The Dons began the season understanding that no one expected much from them after they moved to 3A.
"Every game we went into we were underdogs," said Paulino, who was responsible for 98 offensive yards. "Every game we came into in this playoff, everyone was expecting us to lose. No one was expecting anything from us."
The secret to the team's success, including a shocking upset of three-time defending 3A champion Juan Diego, was chemistry and leadership.
"Our secret is we played as brothers," said Paulino. "We didn't have any star players; we just had one team."
Quarterback Hayden Nielsen, who threw four touchdown passes and rushed for another 81 yards, echoed Paulino's sentiments.
"I don't think anyone — not our fans, not their fans — thought we were going to be here," said Nielsen. "We set a goal, one at a time; preseason, region and then here, we competed. No one ever thought we'd make it this far. It was a team effort. We just set a goal and worked hard."
More than winning or losing, the Dons said they tried to play every day, every down as a team.
"The chemistry was there from the beginning of the season," said Paulino. "We sort of learned from past years' mistakes. We had good players, but the chemistry wasn't there, the leadership wasn't there. We knew that was something we had to change."
Head coach Matt Christensen said he got exactly what he's come to expect from his players in Thursday night's game — everything they had.
"They're going to play four quarters," he said. "That's how we are. I'm real pleased. They're great kids and they work hard."
While Spanish Fork started strong and led the Tigers 21-17 at half, the Dons seemed to struggle stopping the Hurricane ground game in the third quarter, specifically senior running back Brian Scott, who finished with 206 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
"We got a little out of rhythm," Christensen said. "They made some good adjustments. That's just football. We had to make a few, and I thought we adjusted okay in the fourth quarter. We just came up a little short."
Christensen praised his team leaders, especially his senior class.
"Their attitude," he said of what made them special and successful. "They came to work everyday. That's what was fun. They lay it out on the line. Our leadership was great."
As heartbreaking as it was to come just three points from a berth into the state championship game, the players and coaches believe this year's success is only the beginning of something special for the Spanish Fork program.
"We're doing some good things," said Christensen. "They're just getting a taste; hopefully we're starting some traditions. I'm really proud of them."