By Paul Myers
VISALIA– By the end of Friday night’s Division IV Valley Championship tilt, Golden West players were crying tears of joy. Whether it was because they finally grasped the school’s first valley championship in football, or because of the nail biting battle is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure though, players coaches and fans will remember this game for some time to come.
Every game has a winner and loser but between the Trailblazers and the Central Valley Christian Cavaliers, there were ups, downs, late game comebacks, cringe worthy calls and plenty of suspense. At no point was there a clear cut winner during Friday’s title bout. Each team went blow for blow until the end of regulation and then they needed overtime to decide.
“It is going to be a life long memory, that’s for sure…but I feel for [CVC] they fought hard. Nobody really deserved to lose this game,” head coach Paul Preheim said after the overtime win.
Nonetheless there needed to be a loser, and Golden West was almost it. The Trailblazer defense took the field first and while they were able to keep CVC to third downs, the Cavaliers always seemed to find a way to convert. On a drive that saw CVC chew up more than half the quarter, the Cavaliers were staring down a third and 13. They put the ball in Jaalen Rening’s hand for a 13 yard gain. His key third down production became a trend throughout the match.
Just a few plays later CVC quarterback Jj Lino hit Spencer Morris on a quick button hook for the touchdown.
Things clearly could have gotten out of hand for Golden West when they went three and out on their first drive of the game. Those turned out to be their only plays in the first quarter. Fortunately the Golden West defense, bend-don’t-break philosophy started to pay off at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second.
On CVC’s second drive of the game they killed more clock after getting good field position at their 49 yard line. In the last few plays of the opening quarter CVC could have gotten their second score quickly had it not been for a heads-up penalty by safety Tyson Sandry. He was clearly beaten on a route to the end zone and instead of letting wide receiver Gavin Salierno catch the ball Sandry grabbed him and took him down. While it was a clear pass interference call it wound up saving Golden West in the end.
Eventually knocking on the door from the one yard line at the beginning of the second quarter, the Trailblazer defense became fierce against the run. Backed up against their own end zone the Blazer dominated the line of scrimmage on a third down run attempt. Going for the score on fourth down, Lino tossed the ball up for a corner fade but it was defended well to keep the game within a score.
Coach Preheim said that his secondary really came together in this game, especially with the activation of Kai Caudell who had been held out of action since October. Linebacker Josh Summers said that getting off the field on third and fourth down was the hardest part of the matchup, but they were able to hold CVC to only 21 points.
“We held them to a lot less points they are used to scoring,” Summers said.
And he’s right, last week CVC put up 57 points in the semifinals against Bakersfield North, their highest point total of the season. And over the course of 2017 they averaged 35 points per game.
Golden West was able to gather some momentum when Christian Ortiz sprung loose for 40 yards to give the offense more than enough breathing room. After a steady dose of Ortiz, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Caudell the CVC defense stiffened up and went on to force a turnover on downs when the Blazers failed to convert on a fourth and 14.
On the very next play Lino aired it out to Matthew De Jong. But Sandry defended the ball nicely and was actually able to come down with it for the interception around midfield.
Golden West’s offense stuck to their running strategy when Ortiz found space for a big gain, Caudell broke another run loose for 15 yards along the far sideline. With 5:29 left Rodriguez cleaned up the rest with a 15 yard scoring scamper to tie up the game 7-7.
The Trailblazers capitalized on their momentum when they recovered a surprise onside kick at the 35 yard line. They managed to ground the ball all the way down to the three before letting Caudell in on the scoring action. The newly activated running back took a sweep around the right side and gave Golden West the go ahead 14-7 score.
One minute and 54 seconds might be too little time to tie up the game for some teams, but CVC got it done. Lino hit Salierno for a deep pass that set them up at the Golden West 25, then Lino connected with Tanner Rocha in the middle of the red zone. Golden West’s Ben Davis laid a shoulder into Rocha but it wasn’t enough to bring him down. Instead Rocha just bounced off the would be tackler and ran it in untouched for the game tying score.
Tied 14-14 things could have just ended but the Golden West offense tried to respond before the close of the half. Unfortunately their top lineman Zac Foley broke his leg on a running play.
Coach Prehiem said that they regularly rotate in backups at various positions so they managed to continue their game plan without much change.
Where the first half was more of a punch and counter-punch type game, the second half was about keeping the clock rolling while keeping the other offense off the field. The Trailblazers masterfully drained the clock with their first drive of the half. All together they got into the red zone, but got stuffed on a fourth and three try. Although, they didn’t come away with points, they did take seven minutes off the clock.
With their remaining time in the third quarter CVC was able to get down the field with pass plays that put them beyond midfield. Then on third and 10 the Cavaliers handed off to Rening for 13 yards putting them at the Golden West 13 yard line. The Trailblazer coaching staff shouted in protest over a missed holding call that allowed Rening to find the space for the first down.
Continuing their drive into the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers were forced into a fourth and one. Lino made an attempt to connect with Rocha in the end zone. He seemed to have come down with it but when he dove to grab the ball it slipped out of his hands to keep the score tied 14-14.
The real momentum shifting play came when the Golden West coaching staff decided to roll the dice on a fourth and three from their own 36 yard line. Quarterback Payton Allen handed off to Caudell. He got a key block on the left side of the line that gave him a field’s worth of open space to roam. With nothing but green grass in front of him Caudell didn’t quit till he hit pay dirt and a 21-14 lead with 6:58 left.
After exchanging possessions the Cavaliers needed to muster a late game comeback with two minutes left. They managed to gather some momentum through key third and fourth down conversions. Their largest fourth down came within the final minute of the game. Backed up to the Golden West 25 yard line after a holding call, it was touchdown or bust for the Cavaliers on fourth and 20.
Golden West’s talented secondary was on full display on the first three downs. Receivers nearly came down with ball several times but Caudell, Sandry or Allen were there to save the game by knocking the ball loose. At least that was until Lino launched it to the far side of the end zone for Rocha. Nobody on the home side could see if Rocha caught it, but the erupting celebration on the CVC sideline made it clear that the game would soon be tied 21-21 with 17 seconds left.
“I was afraid they were going to go for two because they have the offense to do it,” Preheim said.
Instead CVC went with the point after to tie it up, and according to Preheim the feeling of last year’s crushing loss to Chowchilla in the semifinals started to creep into his mind. And things seemed to get worse when Rening ran the ball into the end zone on the first play of overtime. At first it seemed as if Golden West’s history making night was coming to an end until the referees called back the score on account of holding, putting CVC 35 yards away.
Golden West’s defense showed up in a big way when it counted. They held strong and kept CVC from getting much yardage after the holding call. On a fourth and 18 Lino clearly couldn’t find anyone open. When he went to scramble around the Blazer’s linebacker Christian Benavides met him in the pocket for Golden West’s first sack of the game. It couldn’t have been any more timely.
All that was left to do was score, and the Trailblazers did not want to waste much time doing it. Caudell took the first handoff to get down to the 15 yard line and a first down. Then Rodriguez did the rest. He got the ball near the right side of the line, saw the hole, put his foot in the ground and turned up field. The lane was clear the rest of the way as he crossed the goal line for the win.
“It’s a blessing I can tell you that,” Rodriguez said.