MURRIETA — On a night where the emotions ran high, it was appropriate that Vista Murrieta High's football fortunes came down to the final seconds.
Quarterback Nick Stevens was up to the task. And now, he and his Broncos will always be heroes in this town because of it.
Stevens' 30-yard touchdown run with 26 seconds left lifted host Vista Murrieta past Corona Centennial, 35-28, in the CIF Southern Section Inland Division championship game, and thus giving Vista Murrieta its long-elusive section championship.
For a program that has endured quite a bit, from a stinging loss two years ago to Chaparral, to last year's disappointment at Corona Centennial, to having to forfeit five nonleague games this season due to using an ineligible player — well, it was a sweet finish.
For Coley Candaele, the Broncos' founding coach who won his first title at the school after nine seasons — Candaele did win a Division XI title in Carpinteria in 2002 — Friday night was a long time coming.
"I can take a deep breath now," Candaele said moments after getting the traditional Gatorade bath. "You've got to get that first one. Once you get that first one, that takes care of the feeling of, 'Are you ever going to break through? Are you ever going to win one of these?'"
The answers now are "yes" and "yes."
And this time, it was Vista Murrieta that laughed last. It couldn't have been much more dramatic.
The second-seeded Broncos led 27-14 entering the fourth quarter, with the game firmly in control. But top-seeded Centennial's video-game offense, complete with running back Romello Goodman — who just two weeks ago racked up eight touchdowns against Chaparral — rose to the occasion, scoring twice to take a 28-27 lead.
In the past, Broncos might have folded. On this night, they triumphed.
Stevens calmly drove his team, converting twice on fourth down. One was a clutch, 8-yard pass over the middle to senior Bradley Trujillo on a play that won't be remembered as well but should be just as legendary as Casey Marquez's catch against Norco in the semifinals two years ago. The second was a crafty move beyond his years by Stevens, whose hard count drew Centennial offsides to set up the grand finale.
Then, on a second-and-7 from the Huskies 30, Stevens kept the ball, scampered left, and ran 30 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown with 26 seconds remaining.
Stevens' gallop was a score that capped the point perfectly: This year was different.
From the very start Friday night, it was clear there was a different feel and a sense of urgency for the Broncos' faithful.
Two years ago, it was their first finals trip, and they had to share the spotlight with league-rival and nemesis Chaparral, which, under demonstrative then-coach Tom Leach, couldn't help but carry a high profile.
Last year at Centennial, Vista Murrieta fought hard but was overmatched in a 45-21 loss to the Huskies, who simply had too much speed and octane to keep up.
"Two years ago, we played like we hadn't been here before, and Chaparral played like they had," Candaele said. "Last year, we ran into a better team. This year, I thought it was 50-50 and it would come down to who would have the ball last."
Other than a few desperate, game-ending plays by Centennial -- which has won a whopping seven section titles in 12 years -- it did.
Most figured that if ever there was to be a Broncos' night, Friday was it. Much of the standing-room only crowd of more than 7,000 fans arrived at least 90 minutes in advance and cheered with the same sense of urgency they hoped their team would play with.
The Broncos responded, forcing Centennial's Oregon-like offense to three-and-outs on its first two possessions. The Huskies' first first down didn't come until 2:11 remained in the first quarter.
Offensively, Stevens continued a season-long progression by showing impressive poise. He engineered his team to a 10-0 lead, tossing his first touchdown pass to Su'a Cravens when everyone in the stadium knew Cravens, locked up in one-on-one coverage, was going to get the ball.
From there, the Broncos didn't let up, but the defense, so good all year with coming up with the big plays at the big times, did finally tire in the fourth quarter.
Thanks to Stevens' late heroics — the quarterback's touchdown came as Candaele was trying to grind down the clock and play for a Tyler Rausa field goal — there would be no disappointment this time.