You could say that a 4A state championship for the Highland High football team just wasn't in the card.

That's right - "in the card" . . . singular . . . as the sole card's width difference that kept the Rams from earning a first down following a crucial fourth-down, fourth-quarter play in Highland's 22-14 loss Friday to Skyline at Rice Stadium.Here's how it happened: trailing 15-14 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Rams started a drive at their own 20-yard line, with wishbone quarterback Joe Sheffield helping Highland down to the Skyline 27.

With 6:46 left to play and the Rams facing a fourth-and-two, Sheffield squeezed through the line, landing close to first-down distance. The spot of the ball, of course, was both cheered or jeered from opposing sidelines.

The chains were brought over from the far sideline for a measurement - and the measurement was too close to call at first, what with officials and players elbowing each other for the best visual advantage. Still, nearly a minute later - no conclusion.

In a flair for the dramatic, a couple of officials got down on all fours, with one pulling out an index card to make sure there was at least a fraction's space between the marker and the ball. Highland lost possession - and its momentum.

"That was the critical point - I'd be a liar if I didn't say so," said a disappointed Highland Coach Tom Kingsford, whose postgame task was to console the second-place Rams. "You play so hard, you work so hard, and it all comes down to this."

What it came down to was that Highland - the only team to beat Skyline during the 1990 season - couldn't pull off a second triumph, this time with the 4A crown in the balance.

Oh, Highland had a couple more possessions remaining, but there were a far cry - and a far distance - from having the ball again at the Eagles' 25. A Skyline punt pushed the Rams back to their own 14, and that first possession ended with a interception by Skyline's Joe Dupaix, whose 28-yard return eventually led to a 4-yard touchdown by Jake Marshall, a PAT kick by Branden Jones, and a 22-14 Eagle advantage.

Highland had the ball one more time with 1:01 to play, looking to send the game into overtime with a touchdown and two-point conversion. After reaching midfield in two plays, the Rams were pushed back 20 yards in the final seconds, with Dupaix logging his second interception of Sheffield's desperation heave as time expired.

Despite the title-game loss, Highland did come out better than Skyline in several categories, such as total yardage (263 to 217 yards) and rushing (203 to 166). Sheffield was the game's leading rusher with 116 yards on 25 carries and touchdowns of 6 and 14 yards. He also gained another 60 yards on 6-of-13 passing.

The Rams ended the season with a 10-3 record, with all three losses coming in league play in the powerhouse Region 2 - to Olympus and Alta and now Skyline. More importantly, Highland earned 1990 runner-up honors, which the Rams will appreciate more as the sting of the championship loss goes away.

"Nobody expected them (the Rams) to be here in the championship, but they were here - and they can be proud," said Kingsford.