By BEN JOHNSON
Brandon Conrad slowly sauntered toward Tahlequah's locker room, trying to fight back his emotions. Charles Lamons and David Dick exchanged hugs and pleasantries with loved ones.
Meanwhile, Collinsville players and coaches celebrated with their fans on Gable Field.
It was both ends of the spectrum, separated by only 50 yards.
That was the scene following Collinsville's 33-23 triumph over Tahlequah at Doc Wadley Stadium on Friday night.
Zane McElroy and Ryan Haymaker combined to run for 239 yards, propelling the Cardinals (8-2, 6-1 District 5A-4) to their first district championship since 2000.
Not long after the postgame handshakes, Collinsville head coach Kevin Jones delivered a message to his club.
"WE ARE DISTRICT CHAMPS!" Jones shouted, prompting a thunderous roar of approval from his players and fans.
It didn't come easy, though.
Tahlequah (1-9, 1-6) trimmed Collinsville's lead to 26-23 with 3:55 left in the game on Brandon Conrad's 12-yard touchdown run. All the Tigers had to do was come up with a defensive stand once the Cardinals took over at their own 32-yard line with 3:52 left.
That's when Collinsville caught all 1,500 spectators in attendance by surprise.
Instead of keeping the ball on the ground with McElroy or Haymaker, the Cardinals went to the air to score on their first play of the drive. McElroy lofted a play-action pass over the middle of the field to tight end Keenan Hamilton, who caught the ball near the 50-yard line and out-ran Tahlequah's defense to the end zone.
"Gave up the big play over the top and that's kind of been our story," Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said. "It's not anyone's fault. It's as much the coaches' fault as anyone."
All of a sudden Collinsville's lead was back to double digits, with the district title was all but locked up.
On Tahlequah's next drive, the Tigers drove into Collinsville territory, but the drive came to a halt on T.J. Johnson's interception with 2:02 remaining.
From there, the Cardinals ran out the clock while starting to rejoice in district supremacy.
For Tahlequah, it signaled the end of its season, extending the Tigers' playoff drought, which dates back to 2001.
"It didn't always go our way, but we fought to the very end in every game," said Gilbert, whose team had four district games decided by 10 points or less. "We continued to fight, scratch and claw, but we just couldn't get over the hump in the end."
A game with late theatrics was nothing new to Collinsville in Week 10. The Cardinals had six games decided by 10 points or less during 5A-4 play.
"It was a Cardinal-fashion win," said Jones, whose team put itself in position to claim the district crown by beating Pryor, 20-19, in Week 9. "We made it interesting, almost like we've done almost every week this season."
Trailing 9-6 at halftime, Collinsville went on top for good on Haymaker's 6-yard run with 8:50 left in the third period. The Cardinals would add to their 13-9 lead with 13 more unanswered points — on a 5-yard McElroy run and a 23-yard pass from McElroy to Dylan Cook — on scores late in the third quarter and early in the fourth period.
Then Tahlequah went to work, forcing a fumble on a McElroy run with 8:58 left in the final quarter. Three offensive plays later, Tahlequah scores on David Dick's 13-yard run, narrowing Collinsville's lead to 26-15.
The Cardinals picked up a first down on their next drive but were forced to punt, giving the ball back to Tahlequah with 5:04 left. The Tigers then went 60 yards in five plays, capping off the touchdown drive on Conrad's lone scoring run of the night.
In the first half, Collinsville struck first on the first of McElroy's three passing touchdowns of the night. The senior quarterback — who passed for 154 yards on top of 127 rushing yards on 22 carries — found Johnson for a 10-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-8 to give the Cardinals a 6-0 lead (kicker Sergio Perez missed the point-after attempt).
Tahlequah responded with nine consecutive points in the final 6:06 of the second quarter. The Tigers' first score came on Bryce Patrick's 30-yard field goal, and Tahlequah then took the lead on Dick's 20-yard touchdown pass to Kourt McMillan with four seconds left until intermission.
McMillan finished the night with a game-high six catches for 82 yards. Dick completed 13 of 21 passes for 173 yards while also tossing two interceptions. Dick led the Tigers with 58 rushing yards on 14 carries.
For Collinsville, Haymaker ran the ball 22 times for 112 yards. Through the air, McElroy passed for 154 yards — none bigger than the 68 on his final pass of the night.
The Cardinals will now advance to the Class 5A playoffs, where they'll host Bishop Kelley (6-4) in the first round at Sallee Field. Collinsville lost in the opening round of the playoffs last season, dropping a 29-9 decision at McAlester.
Tahlequah, on the other hand, will have to wait until 2014 to try and win another football game.
Collinsville 33, Tahlequah 23
Cville 6 0 13 14 -- 33
Tah 0 9 0 14 -- 23
COLLINSVILLE — TJ Johnson 10-yard pass from Zane McElroy (Sergio Perez kick failed), 0:01.
TAHLEQUAH — Bryce Patrick 30-yard field goal, 6:06.
TAHLEQUAH — Kourt McMillan 20-yard pass from David Dick (Patrick kick failed), 0:04.
COLLINSVILLE — Ryan Haymaker 6-yard run (Perez kick), 8:50.
COLLINSVILLE — McElroy 5-yard run (kick failed), 3:16.
COLLINSVILLE — Dylan Cook 23-yard pass from McElroy (Perez kick), 11:54.
TAHLEQUAH — Dick 13-yard run (kick failed), 8:06.
TAHLEQUAH — Brandon Conrad 12-yard run (Dick run), 3:55.
COLLINSVILLE — Keenan Hamilton 68-yard pass from McElroy (Perez kick), 3:41.
First downs 22 16
Rush 15 7
Pass 6 9
Penalty 1 0
Rush-yards 51-241 26-89
Pass C-A-I 8-15-0 14-22-2
Pass yards 154 189
Total yards 395 278
Punt-avg 3-31.3 5-32.2
Fumbles-lost 2-1 2-0
Penalty-yards 6-35 6-50
Collinsville: Zane McElroy 22-127, Ryan Haymaker 22-112, Marcus Redwine 5-21, TEAM 2-(minus 19).
Tahlequah: David Dick 14-58, Brandon Conrad 5-22, Colton Wright 4-14, Kourt McMillan 1-8, TEAM 2-(minus 13).
Collinsville: McElroy 8-15-0 154.
Tahlequah: Dick 13-21-2 173, Conrad 1-1-0 16.
Collinsville: Tyler Forrest 3-27, T.J. Johnson 2-28, Dylan Cook 2-15, Keenan Hamilton 1-68.
Tahlequah: McMillan 6-82, Wyatt Jones 3-38, Wright 3-31, Will Carlile 1-25, Conrad 1-17.