High school football: Baron Gajkowski, fierce defense fuel Lone Peak's playoff victory over Syracuse
Daunte Atkinson finally gave the Titans new life with an interception at the Lone Peak 24, but, three plays later, Armstrong returned the favor with his second pick of the day to stop Syracuse's hopes dead in their tracks.
Harker hit a 35-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter to pull the Titans within 21-13, but Gajkowski and the Knights took the ensuing kickoff and ran the final 5:37 off the clock to preserve the victory.
"Syracuse is a great team, you know. They're a class act," Gajkowski said. "There's some times when you come out in this type of playoff-game environment, (and) you're not used to playing at 4 o'clock and things just seem a little bit weird. Trash talk comes out and, you know, it's a competitive thing — it's a 5A state playoff game — and these guys are just a class act.
"They're a great team and a great defense, outstanding. Kavika Fonua, he's something else. ... I just feel like the coaches had us well-prepared this week. We watched a lot of film and we saw some spots where we could really attack 'em, and they did a great job of preparing us. The coaching staff, hats off to them.
"When Chase just gets a pick like that and the defense makes a play, tons of pressure comes off our shoulders," he said. "It just enables us to kinda not really worry too much because, you know what, the defense has got our back. Defense can win the ballgame like they did today."
Gajkowski referred to it as a "great team victory," and Lone Peak coach Mike Mower echoed those sentiments, giving plenty of credit to his defense and the play of his quarterback.
"It's hard to point to one kid, but that defensive line, our defense just stepped up and got it done," Mower said. "(Syracuse) had that one long play at the beginning of the ballgame but, after that, man, (the Knights' defense) stepped up so many times when we had to have them get it done, when our offense would slip a little bit. Especially that defensive front, I just can't say enough about 'em. I thought ... the hallmark of the game was the defensive line.
"Our kids were ready to play. They really were. We had a great week of practice; they were confident; and they came to play. This is a class outfit we beat; I have the highest respect for Syracuse and what they do, and that makes the win even sweeter when you beat a quality team like this.
"He's just one of those guys that, when you need it done, you have great confidence in him that he's gonna get it done most of the time. He really is," Mower said of Gajkowski. "And that's what you have to do. You have to go to your best athletes to get it done, and that's what we do.
"Baron is such a competitor. He's one of the most fierce competitors I've ever coached, and it's like he just can't be denied. He really is an exceptional athlete and just a great young man, too. I mean, really, he's a jewel. ... What can I say? We're lucky to have him. He just knows how to get it done. He just has that extra sense of what he's gotta do. He's just relentless, I mean, he is. Honestly, he is a super kid on and off the field — great leader, a natural leader for everybody, and we're lucky to have him.
"But so many kids contributed," Mower said. "It wasn't just one or two guys, it was just a team win up and down. I'm proud of our kids; they've battled and battled and hung in there all season, and it's paid off. It's paid off for them, working through a little adversity. I think there's a great lesson to be learned here — when you have adversity, you just never, never quit. And you just keep pounding and that's what these kids have done this season. And now good things are happening."
Syracuse, which reached the 5A state finals last year and had never lost a home playoff game before Friday's disappointing defeat, wound up 8-2 overall.
"Their defense is good and they've got a good football team, and they came out and played ready and we just didn't make plays like we usually do," Syracuse coach Russ Jones said. "You've got to hand it to them. They've got a dang good football team and executed and did a great job.
"We couldn't contain him, man," he said of Gajkowski. "We couldn't contain him."