Santa Barbara High's Jaz Gordon reaches up for an interception in Thursday's win. Gordon ended with a pair of takeaways. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

The inaugural Big Game for girls flag football came down to the wire on Thursday as San Marcos played host to Santa Barbara High at Warkentin Stadium.

Ultimately, the Dons came out with a 20-18 win over the Royals but not before plenty of dramatics.

The game started with a bang, as Santa Barbara’s Carolina Esparza jumped in front of a hitch route by the San Marcos receiver on the first play from scrimmage and took the interception back to the endzone for a pick-six.

“[The interception] gave us excitement,” Dons head coach Gabe Renteria said. “[Esparza] has a super high IQ… that was a big momentum swing for us to start the game.”

After Dons quarterback Dayzia Mendoza found Ale Alcocer Vasquez for the one-point conversion, Santa Barbara High was up 7-0 just one minute into the game.

Dayzia Mendoza loads up to throw a pass in Thursday’s win. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

The Royals then struggled to get anything going offensively and were forced to punt.

The Dons took advantage of the momentum, executing an 11-play drive that included a 26-yard completion from Mendoza to Esparza down the sideline.

The drive ended with the ball in Esparza’s hands once again, catching a one-yard touchdown pass as well as the one-point conversion to extend the lead to 14-0 with 9:30 left in the first half.

With the ball back, the San Marcos offense began to put together a solid drive with three plays for over 10 yards each. However, this drive was ended abruptly with an interception by Santa Barbara’s Jaz Gordon.

With the Dons threatening to go up three scores before halftime, the Royals’ Rio Chesluk grabbed an interception of her own to give her offense the ball inside Santa Barbara territory.

The Royals offense kept the momentum as quarterback Mianna Sturm connected with Jazmin Ordaz for a 20-yard pitch and catch that got the ball inside the 10-yard line. From there, Peyton Spurling rushed it in from four yards out.

A failed conversion attempt left the score at 14-6 with 1:30 left in the half.

After the Royals forced a quick Santa Barbara three-and-out, San Marcos had another chance to make a dent in the lead. On the third play of the drive, however, Gordon picked up her second interception of the half with 45 seconds left.

It seemed as though the Dons would run out the clock to head into the locker room with the lead, but the Royals forced a turnover on downs to retain possession at their own 34-yard line with five seconds left.

With one play to go, Sturm heaved a deep ball to Chesluk, who came down with it and made multiple defenders miss on her way to an electrifying 56-yard touchdown.

Sturm is the team’s third-string quarterback, according to head coach Jason Fowle. She got the start after the two quarterbacks in front of her suffered injuries.

“Mia played really well,” Fowle said. “There were some mistakes but she kept moving on to the next play.”

Despite a failed conversion, the Royals had all of the momentum heading into halftime down 14-12.

“We started fast and they punched us in the mouth going into the second half,” Renteria said.

The second half started slow, with the Dons offense turning the ball over on downs twice and San Marcos doing the same once.

However, the Royals’ offense got a jolt when Sperling ripped off a 20-yard run to start their drive with nine minutes to go in the game.

Sperling rushed for 19 more yards that drive to set up a four-yard touchdown pass from Sturm to Chesluk, their second connection of the night. After the conversion was no good, San Marcos held its first lead at 18-14 with five minutes remaining.

Chesluk was the Royals’ leading receiver, hauling in seven passes for 102 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“We fought hard all game and created a lot of opportunities,” Fowle said.

San Marcos’ Rio Chesluk is chased down by Santa Barbara High’s Savannah Valenzuela and Aurelia Agredano Licon. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

With the running clock until there are two minutes to go, the Dons had a chance to close out the game with a walk-off score.

Santa Barbara used up the majority of the clock during their drive, and on third down from six yards out, Mendoza found Alcocer Vasquez, the center, in the endzone to regain the lead.

“[Mendoza] was very poised and is a super high IQ football player,” Renteria said. “She knows the game of football in and out.”

Mendoza ended the game 18-for-32 for 183 passing yards and two passing touchdowns.

After the failed conversion, the Dons clung to a 20-18 lead with 1:32 left.

An excessive celebration penalty by Santa Barbara High at the end of the touchdown gave the Royals the ball at their own 40-yard line, needing 50 yards to walk away with the win.

Sperling was the go-to target on the drive, rushing for seven yards and going for 30 yards through the air.

Peyton Sperling was a focal point of the San Marcos offense on Thursday. (Lily Chubb / Noozhawk Photo)

“It was pure excitement,” Fowle said about the final minutes of the game. “It was very fun for sure.”

With one second to go, San Marcos was 12 yards away from scoring.

On what seemed to be the final play of the game, Sturm tossed the ball out to Sperling, who then found an open receiver in the endzone as time expired.

However, it was ruled that the throw from Sturm to Sperling was a forward pass, making Sperling’s end zone shot an illegal pass.

That ruling gave the Royals one untimed down from 17 yards from the goal line.

Sturm couldn’t find a target downfield so she checked it down to Sperling, who made a few defenders miss before Mendoza of the Dons pulled her flag at the 5-yard line, securing the win for Santa Barbara.

“It felt amazing,” Renteria said about the win. “This rivalry for the boys is big and the girls took it seriously this week.

“It was really nice for us and our team.”

Despite the tough loss, Fowle is proud of the way his team played in its biggest rivalry matchup this year.

“I had no doubt our girls would give their best shots and they did,” Fowle said. “I’m really proud of our girls… we came pretty close.”

San Marcos will turn around and face Bishop Diego next Tuesday while the Dons will take on Oxnard on the road on Thursday.

Noozhawk sports writer Diego Sandoval can be reached at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter @NoozhawkSports