FARMINGTON — The win didn't come as easily as most for Navajo Prep, but the Eagles found a way to grind out a victory on homecoming night.
The Eagles scored 22 unanswered points in the second half as they defeated San Juan County rival Shiprock 34-18 on Friday.
"We held our own, and we're not doing too bad," said Prep head coach Rod Denetso. "We didn't give up, but we need better practices. Our kids are young and have never had success before. We're still learning how to handle it."
The game started just like every other win for Prep (5-1).
On the first Eagles' play from scrimmage, quarterback Tyler Sorensen hit Mikaele Mauga on a screen pass, and Mauga ran 57 yards for the score one minute into the game to give Prep a 6-0 lead.
"It feels pretty good," Mauga said. "Shiprock thinks they can come and beat us, but we proved them wrong."
After the touchdown, the Eagle offense struggled against the Chieftain defense, while the Shiprock (2-4) running game was able to pound the ball against the smaller Prep defenders.
But Prep found the end zone again just a little more than a minute into the second quarter when Sorensen hit Alex Danzuka on a 15 yard touchdown pass, giving the Eagles a 12-0 lead.
The Shiprock offense answered with a touchdown just before halftime on a pass from Ryan Nez to cut the Eagles' lead to 12-6 heading into the break.
"I wanted to show a mixture. We wanted to bring something that they'd never seen before," said Chieftains' head coach Storm Tallball. "We knew Prep was well disciplined, and it would be a tough game. We gave everything we got and wanted to show what Shiprock football is made of."
In the second half, Tallbull opened the Chieftains' bag of tricks, as they appeared to tie the game when Quadry Smith found Hiram Gleason on a triple reverse wide receiver pass, but the touchdown was called back on an illegal block below the waist penalty.
"They were a big, physical team that did some things we didn't expect," Denetso said.
Prep took control of the game from then on as Sorensen threw touchdowns to Mauga and Danzuka in the third quarter, and Izaac Eredia ran in another score early in the fourth.
"We came out with the mentality that we could beat this team easily," said Sorensen, who threw for 410 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions on 22-of-40 passing. "A couple of those big plays really got us going."
The Chieftains tacked on a pair of touchdowns late in the contest, but the deficit proved to be too great to overcome.
Mauga had nine receptions for 153 yards in the Prep win, and Isaiah Yazzie caught eight passes for 116 yards. Danzuka fell just short of the century mark with 98 receiving yards on three catches.
"Our skills guys came through tonight. They clicked with Tyler Sorensen," Denetso said.
Mauga said it took a complete team effort for the Eagles to pull away from Shiprock in the second half.
"We couldn't get the ball without the line blocking, and I couldn't break away and make big plays without my receivers blocking down field," he said.
Sorensen thought it was important for his team to have to battle for four quarters to get a win after the four previous Prep victories came via the mercy rule.
"A lot of those teams we'll see in the playoffs are playing the full four quarters all season," he said. "They're playing and getting that full experience."
The Shiprock offense ran through Nez most of the game as he ran for 77 yards on 17 carries. He struggled through the air, however, completing 10-of-30 for 128 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Next week, the Chieftains have their homecoming game against Escalante, while Prep opens its district schedule at Newcomb.
"We're just going to get better every single game," Tallbull said.
Denetso is hoping for an improved performance from his team as his players work toward repeating as district champs.
"The big prize for us is the playoffs," he said. "Every week, we've got to practice hard and prepare for the playoffs. We're going to work even harder."Joshua Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4577. Follow him on Twitter @jperrysuu.