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3 SOPS rallies late to claim flag football championship

Shane Gardner, 3rd Space Operations Squadron quarterback, scrambles during the first half of the Schriever Flag Football Championship game Oct. 17, 2014 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. Gardner and 3 SOPS handed the 1st Space Operations Squadron its first loss of the season while claiming the championship with a 31-25 victory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Christopher DeWitt)

Shane Gardner, 3rd Space Operations Squadron quarterback, scrambles during the first half of the Schriever Flag Football Championship game Oct. 17, 2014 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. Gardner and 3 SOPS handed the 1st Space Operations Squadron its first loss of the season while claiming the championship with a 31-25 victory. (U.S. Air Force photo/Christopher DeWitt)

Josh Print, 1st Space Operations Squadron quarterback, attempts a pass during the second half of the Schriever Flag Football Championship game Oct. 17, 2014 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.  The 3rd Space Operations Squadron beat 1 SOPS 31-25 to claim the championship. (U.S. Air Force photo/Christopher DeWitt)

Josh Print, 1st Space Operations Squadron quarterback, attempts a pass during the second half of the Schriever Flag Football Championship game Oct. 17, 2014 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. The 3rd Space Operations Squadron beat 1 SOPS 31-25 to claim the championship. (U.S. Air Force photo/Christopher DeWitt)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Things seemed dour for the 3rd Space Operations Squadron late in the Schriever Flag Football Championship game Oct. 17.

After starting hot against previously unbeaten 1st Space Operations Squadron, 3 SOPS squandered a 12-point, first-half lead and sputtered through most of the second half.

With three minutes left and his team trailing by three points, 3 SOPS receiver Jonathan Zysett approached quarterback Shane Gardner.

"They're giving me way too much of a cushion on the go route," Zysett said. "I'll be open underneath."

Gardner took the snap, dodged a rushing lineman and hit Zysett with a pass down the right sideline.  In one fluid motion, Zysett caught, turned, juked his defender and raced up field.  He ran untouched for 40 yards, only to be stopped by a desperate tackle at the 10-yard line.   Three plays later, Gardner scrambled into the end zone for the winning score in 31-25, 3 SOPS victory.

"He's one of our best receivers," Gardner said of Zysett. "But, this was the best defense we've played all season and I just had trouble connecting with him for most of the day. He picked a great time to get wide open and then he made a big play for us at the right time."

While Zysett proved elusive, Gardner had no trouble connecting with his other receivers early in the game.

He hit Austin Randle for the first score of the game less than two minutes into the first half and gave 3 SOPS a 12-0 lead with his second touchdown pass midway through.

Meanwhile, 1 SOPS, which entered the game undefeated and as the league's top seed, struggled to move the ball.

Awakened by Gardner's second touchdown pass of the first half, however, 1 SOPS found its offensive rhythm.  Quarterback Josh Print ignited what turned out to be a see-saw battle when he dived in for a score two minutes later.

With time running out in the first half, Gardner responded by connecting with Tyrelle Shepherd on a 50-yard bomb. 

The play gave 3 SOPS a 19-6 halftime lead. But, it was a lead they couldn't hold.

Shaun Phipps opened the second half by intercepting Gardner and returning the pick for a touchdown.  Six minutes later, Print hit Brett Kasischke on a crossing route. Kasischke caught the pass, darted for the sideline and outran every defender to the goal line to give 1 SOPS its first lead of the game 25-22, with three minutes remaining.

Hayes said he thought 1 SOPS had momentum on its side at that point, but Gardner and Zysett had other ideas.

"Losing the lead presented some adversity," Randle said. "Thankfully, we endured and stuck with it."

Zysett made his key catch and run, and Gardner snuck in for the touchdown on the next play, but considering 1 SOPS's big-play ability, Randle decided to go for a three-point conversion and a six-point cushion.

Gardner heaved a pass high into the back of the end zone for Shepherd, who leaped more than 3 feet up to snag it for the three points.

With 1 SOPS needing a touchdown to tie the game, Print commandeered a drive the length of the field in the closing minute, but his last pass fell incomplete as the final whistle blew.

"Our defense, especially our pass rush, has been the strongest part of our game all season, but their offensive line did a good job of blocking," said 1 SOPS Coach Chris Hayes. "Gardner is a great athlete and they deserved to win."
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