Randall Cunningham never had started a varsity football game before this season.
But the senior certainly made the most of his one year as a regular.
Cunningham rushed for 213 yards and four touchdowns Saturday to cap his senior season with a 48-14 win over Reed in the Division I state championship game at Sam Boyd Stadium. It was the fifth straight title for the Gaels.
“He’s a special athlete, and I’m going to miss him,” Gorman coach Tony Sanchez said.
Reed missed Cunningham most of the day. The 6-foot-5-inch, 184-pound senior found holes all day running the read option and often outran the Raiders and got to the edge.
Nine of Cunningham’s 22 carries went for 10 or more yards. Five of those went for 20 or more yards, including a 49 yarder.
“I just saw a defense that didn’t blitz much, so I knew the running game would be crucial today, and that’s what happened,” Cunningham said.
The run game was especially important after Reed (12-2) delivered the first blow, scoring on the game’s opening drive when Chris Denn hit wide receiver Trae Wells with an 8-yard touchdown pass on a quick slant with 10:04 to go in the first quarter. Denn completed a 68-yard pass to Wells on third-and-9 earlier to keep the drive alive.
Gorman (13-2) answered immediately, marching 70 yards on 11 plays, capped by Cunningham’s 12-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7.
Nine of the 11 plays were runs, with Cunningham rushing for 42 yards on the drive.
“If we don’t (score there), they come back out with even more confidence,” Sanchez said. “You’ve just got to respond. That’s what the game’s all about. They’ll make some plays, and you’ve got to respond and make a play, and we did that, and that was big.”
Gorman took the lead for good on its next possession, going 44 yards on seven plays, capped by a 22-yard touchdown run by Cunningham.
An interception by safety Nicco Fertitta set up Gorman’s final scoring drive of the first half, a 1-yard plunge by Daniel Stewart with 1:27 to go in the half, and the Gaels took a 21-7 lead at the break.
Reed threatened to make things interesting early in the second half. Cunningham fumbled trying to hand off to Stewart on the half’s first drive, and Reed defensive tackle Alden Giang pounced on the ball at the Raiders 24.
Denn found wide receiver Jake Lehmann wide open on the first play of the ensuing drive for a 65-yard pass to move the ball to the Gorman 11. Denn had a 5-yard run, Reed’s longest rush of the game to that point, to get to the 6, but Gorman linebacker Chris Lalli stuffed the next play for a 2-yard loss, and an incomplete pass forced Reed to go for a field goal.
Cornerback Dylan Weldon blocked Jesse Brock’s 25-yard attempt, and it was all Gorman from there. The Gaels scored three touchdowns in a span of 1 minute, 31 seconds to take control for good.
“Blocking that kick was huge,” Sanchez said. “That would have been a big momentum swing. If they go down and they score, man, they’re feeling real good, and now you’ve got a seven-point ballgame going on. And before you know it, we had, not a comfortable lead, but we had a pretty big lead.”
Cunningham had a 28-yard touchdown run to make it 28-7 with 7:05 to go in the third. On the second play of the next drive, Denn’s pass went off wide receiver Wade Eiler’s hands, and Stewart picked it off and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown. A 12-yard punt into a strong wind set up a one-play scoring drive for Gorman, as Cunningham hit wide receiver Riley Hoff for a 27-yard scoring pass with 5:34 to go in the third quarter for a 41-14 lead.
“That’s the dangerous kind of team we are,” Cunningham said. “I feel like we can score on any play in our playbook, and I feel like we do that every game.”
Cunningham added an 11-yard touchdown run with 7:41 to play to cap the scoring. In addition to the 213 yards on the ground, he was 9-for-11 passing for 111 yards and the touchdown.
“I thought we played a little bit like we were on a roller-coaster ride,” Reed coach Ernie Howren said. “At times we played well, and at times we made some critical mistakes that you can’t make against a team the caliber of Gorman.”
The Gaels became the first large-school team to win five consecutive titles since Reno did it from 1924 to 1928.
“It feels great to get a fifth championship and to get a first state championship as a starter,” Cunningham said. “And I feel like it’s going to keep happening in the future.”