Wranglers Top Quad City 47-45 For IFL Championship – Ron Williams

Photo: 22 Israel Tucker goes head over heels on a kickoff return

The Northern Arizona Wranglers are the 2022 IFL Champions. Yes indeed, from worst to first. What an incredible turnaround in just one season. Even more impressive if you consider that no other professional sports team has ever done that. Yeah, there have been teams that were last in their division, but never the worst in the league. Historical, you bet, and it happened in our own backyard. So many people go into making of a championship team, so congratulations to you, my friends. You did it. You are the best in the IFL for 2022, and quite deserving of that. The Wranglers held off the Quad City Steamwheelers 47-45, a closer score than perhaps it should have been, but more on that later.

The Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada was rockin’ as both sides had their support, with more coming up from Arizona to cheer on their Wranglers.

Making the rounds prior to kickoff, I encountered Offensive Coordinator Rod Windsor who said “We’re ready. The guys have worked so hard and they can’t wait to get the game started.” The Wranglers won the toss but gave Quad City the ball first in hopes of an early stop.  The Steamwheelers had other plans and were able to take an early lead when IFL offensive player of the year, quarterback  E.J. Hillard Jr. used his legs for a three yard touchdown run to go up 7-0.

Wrangler quarterback Kaleb Barker put the offense to work, capping off a nine play drive, connecting with Glen Gibbons Jr. for a 12 yard touchdown. Craig Peterson added the extra point and we were knotted up at seven. The NAZ defense flexed their muscles on the next Quad City possession, getting the offense back the ball after holding the Steamwheelers on a fourth and three play.

Barker scampered up the middle from 10 yards out to give the Wranglers the first lead 14-7, a lead that NAZ refused to give up. Once again the defense did their job, forcing Quad City to settle for a long 52 yard Naeho field goal to cut the lead to 14-10 midway through the second quarter.

The lead grew to eleven as Ulice Gillard went around the far end for the five yard touchdown and with just under five minutes left in the half, the Wranglers led 21-10. Quad City scored on a 21 yard pass from Hillard Jr to Mike Carrigan, getting to within 21-17.

The Wranglers tried to use up the final 90 seconds on the clock to close out the half, which they did, but nearly cost them some points. A holding penalty was the deciding factor after being on the Quad City one yard line. Peterson kicked through a 25 yard field goal to end the half with NAZ up 24-17.

The largest Wrangler lead of the game, 13 came twice, 30-17 and 37-24, both in the third quarter. NAZ got what they wanted when they deferred to the second half on the coin toss. A nicely executed end around play by Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Brown, fighting off a pair of would-be tacklers, from 13 yards out gave Northern Arizona a little breathing room, but a missed extra point left the score at 30-17 with 13:20 left in the third quarter. The 13 point lead was very short lived as former Wrangler Keyvan Rudd caught a 42 yard touchdown pass, as Hillard Jr. aired it out on the very next play. Add the extra point, and the Wrangler lead was just six at 30-24.

Running back Israel Tucker caught the first of his two touchdown receptions with a 20 yard grab and go from Barker to increase the NAZ lead to 37-24.

The teams entered the fourth quarter with that same score, but a first play one yard plunge by Hillard Jr. trimmed their deficit to 37-31. The short drive was set up by after Barker lost the ball. Linebacker Darin Hungerford planted Hillard Jr. for a nine yard loss, but Quad City would eventually score three plays later as Hillard Jr. faked a handoff, running the ball in from one yard out on 4th and goal. The Wranglers next drive was stopped short, having to settle for three, putting NAZ up 40-31 with 9:09 remaining.

The one thing that remained constant throughout for Quad City was if Hillard Jr. got enough time, he would find an open receiver. Doing so again with Rudd on an 18 yard zipline strike, and all of a sudden it was 40-37, staying that way because Naeho missed the extra point attempt. Hillard Jr. would finish 7-11, 123 yards and four touchdowns, along with 70 yards, 2 TDs, on 12 carries.

The final Wrangler score was indeed the dagger with Tucker in the back of the end zone on a beautiful fake run up the middle by Barker, who went two steps up and three back releasing the ball into the open Tucker on a huge fourth down play. Down by ten with under two minutes to play, the Steamwheelers had to work hard as  JaQuan Artis, Darin Hungerford, and Ulric Jones put enormous amount of pressure on the QB. Hillard  Jr. managed to get his shot and drilled Mike Carrigan from thirty yards out with just forty four ticks on the clock. Quad City went for and picked up the two point conversion to get within two. Quad City’s 47 year old kicker, Kimo Naeho placed the ball near the sideline in order to try and kick a deuce, which is a rule in the final minute of each half. Making it would have tied the score. Naeho’s kick might well have gone through the upright if it had not been for the speakers at the top of the arena. As the ball hit and fell to the ground, Naejo was visibly upset by this, falling to his knees.

Barker and company took care of the ball running out the final 44 seconds with four plays to secure a Northern Arizona IFL Championship. The jubilant Wranglers soaked it all up as confetti flew and many embraces of both family and team mates in the emotionally charged celebration.

Coach Les Moss said, “We won the championship. That is the ultimate goal. We followed the game plan and were able to beat a good Quad City team. This is a special group of guys. The players and coaches worked very hard for this.”

Quarterback Kaleb Barker, completed 9-14, 97 yards, three touchdowns, plus 64 yards with a TD rushing said, “I can’t say enough about this team. We knew what had to be done and executed like we knew we could. We were focused and confident with the game plan our coaches came up with. Very happy for this championship with such a great group of guys.”

Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, who became a Wrangler midseason, scoring a touchdown on two receptions, plus three rushes for 24 yards, said, “Feeling  great, its surreal.  Super grateful for this.  Super grateful too for the guys taking me in. The homies are real. The game was amazing, the venue was awesome, and the approach by the team was unmatched.  The focus of the players and coaches was amazing and we did it.”

Kicker Craig Peterson, who came to the Wranglers late in the season, after an injury sidelined Brandon Fischer said, “It is an incredible feeling because you know where you have been before.” Peterson, who came to the Wranglers late in the season, added, ”I made sure when I came here I was going to kill it, and I did just that. I could not be happier. For all the adversity that I have been through, this is the best. You don’t know what you have till you don’t have it.”

Darin Hungerford recorded three tackles and a sack, said, “I just want to thank God for the opportunity to play this game.  im thankful for my team mates.  Quad City they came out with a great game plan. They are such a nitty group,. But we had a great game plan. We were battle tested, and I’m just glad that me and my team mates were able to come together and get the job done.”

Ulric Jones, with four tackles said, “This was one of a kind.  That was a great team we played tonight and we came together to get the win.”  On playing against the offensive player of the year, E.J. Hillard Jr., Jones added, “The game plan was to not let him beat us with his feet. We were able to pretty much contain him and get pressure on the passes.”

Running back Israel Tucker scored two touchdowns on four pass receptions, said, “We did it. I have just got to make those plays, (the TD catches). The guys stuck to the game plan and even when things wasn’t quite going our way, we stayed focus on what we all need to do.” Tucker, who literally ran over some defenders carrying the ball 12 times for 30 yards, added, ”We were not going to be denied. This was for everything.”

Offensive lineman Josh Poe said, “Turning the tides, washed last season all away. That was a great team we played.  I am so proud of our team, our quarterback, our running backs, the defense, everybody. They all played together and this makes all the hard work worthwhile. What a great win!”

Team President Trey Medlock said, “Tonight we came through made the stops when we needed to, and that was the difference. This is more than I thought would happen, after a 1-13 season, bringing in all the new people, and getting things in place to compete. It shows that a small market team can compete with large market teams like Arizona, San Diego, Bay Area, Frisco and Las Vegas. Congratulations to the team.”

Lineman Zech Thomas said, “From the moment when we first touch down, we had a goal, and that was to be here. We knew it would take a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, a lot blood sweat and tears, but who better to put in that work than to us. We said we would be here March 1, and were here, and we did it.”

Defensive player of the year, JaQuan Artis, had five tackles along with two sacks, said, “That was a battle. Hillard was tough to get down, but we kept on him all night. Hats off to the guys for leaving it all on the field.  Feels great to have the championship.”

The Wranglers finish the season at (15-4) and will enjoy this championship win for a long time.

NORTHERN ARIZONA WRANGLERS 47, QUAD CITY STEAMWHEELERS 45

Score by Quarters-      1        2        3        4     –     T

Quad City                      7       10       7       21    –   45

Northern Arizona        7       17      13      10    –   47

Att: 4,149

Scoring Summary

QC-Hillard Jr. 3 yard run (Naeho kick)

NAZ-Gibbons Jr. 12 yard pass from Barker (Peterson kick)

NAZ-Barker 10 yard run (Peterson kick)

QC-Naeho 52 yard Field Goal

NAZ-Gillard 5 yard run (Peterson kick)

QC-Carrigan 21 yard pass from Hillard (Naeho kick)

NAZ-Peterson 25 yard Field Goal

NAZ-Chiaokhiao-Brown 13 yard run (Kick failed)

QC-Rudd 42 yard pass from Hillard (Naeho kick)

NAZ-Tucker 20 yard pass from Barker (Peterson kick)

QC-Hillard Jr. 1 yard run (Naeho kick)

NAZ-Peterson 23 yard Field Goal

QC-Rudd 18 yard pass from Hillard Jr. (Naeho kick)

NAZ-Tucker 2 yard pass from Barker (Peterson kick)

QC-Carrigan 30 yard pass from Hillard Jr. (Rudd run)

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