MANTECA—The Sonora Wildcats and Sierra Timberwolves had a shootout Friday night. Back and forth the football teams traded offensive attacks with neither relenting. After 48 hard-fought minutes, Sierra’s fire power, namely Anthony Cota, proved too much and the Timberwolves defeated the Wildcats 47-42.
The game featured 1,079 combined yards, over 40 first downs and 24 plays that gained 15 yards or more — mostly more — 12 by each team
Sonora sent the first offensive on its first drive. On Play 2, Sonora quarterback Casey Holman kept and gained 44 yards. On Play 3, Sonora slotback Cristian LaPertche took a pitch from Holman, made a crafty cut that caused a defender to collapse, and sprinted to the pylon for a 33-yard score.
“I wasn’t expecting the pitch because Casey was wrapped up, but all of a sudden he tossed it out there,” said LaPertche. “I saw their cornerback and I was afraid to juke because I didn’t want to slip. But I cut anyway and I saw him hit the ground and it was an open shot to the endzone.”
With 8:17 left in the opening quarter, Sonora had a 7-0 lead.
But hang on, the next 1:17 may have caused whiplash to fans, coaches and players. The chain gang could barely get yard markers set before running after the next play.
Moments after the Cats took the lead, Sierra’s incomparable running back Cota, juked — disappeared — then reappeared gliding down the sideline for a 66-yard score to tie the game. Well maybe not disappeared. But one moment he was surrounded by Cats, the next he was running free.
The Wildcats committed a turnover on their next play at their 27.
The very next snap, Sierra went to the air for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Sonora’s Ryan Puou returned it 80 yards for a touchdown.
That’s right, three touchdowns were scored in four plays. With 7:00 still left in the first quarter, the game was tied 14-14.
“I just kept remembering Coach (John) Canepa telling me to say, ‘Go’ for the wedge to go before I caught the ball,” said Puou. “I saw the ball, I yelled, ‘Go!’ I caught it and they made a big hole and I ran for daylight.”
Sierra took the lead for good on its next possession, actually scoring slow taking over three minutes off the clock.
Sonora came roaring right back and was driving for the tie, but turned it over on downs at the Wolves 17.
The still offensively-hot Sierra went on the march again and took a two-touchdown lead.
The Wildcats, moving the ball seemingly at will, marched to the Sierra 3 before turning it over at the goal line.
Sonora had yet another chance to score before halftime, but its drive stalled at the Sierra 4.
“We left 21 points on the field tonight easy,” said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. “And we gave up two touchdowns on turnovers. It’s frustrating to be in this week of the season and not be protecting the ball.”
The second half started almost as fast as the first.
Holman dropped back on third down and found big-play receiver Thomas Erwin streaking down the middle of the field.
“The play is called Kade Stop,” said Holman. “The first time we called that, I threw it over there and the coaches told me Thomas was wide open. So I looked there the next time and he was open.”
“They didn’t cover me the first time we ran that play, so we looked there a second time and it was wide open,” said Erwin, who has three TD receptions this season, all over 35 yards.
Erwin caught the 52-yard bomb and the Wildcats were back within seven, 28-21.
But Sierra decided to give the ball to Cota in the second half too.
On Sierra’s next drive, he worked his magic moves and ran for a 40-yard gain. He then scored on a 21-yard burst.
Cota carried the ball 34 times for 328 yards and four touchdowns.
“He is by far the best back in the league, there’s no doubt,” said Craig. “He’s got a combination of speed and power and his vision … when I talked to my linebackers, they said they’d make a small mistake and he’d be by you. He’s got outstanding vision … he’s by far the best back in the league.”
The rest of Sierra’s ball carriers gained just 13 yards on 13 attempts.
But on the contrary, Sonora’s numbers rushing were similar to Cota’s.
The Cats gained a not so flashy 340 yards on 43 attempts led by Holman’s 155 yards on 15 carries.
Also for Sonora (3-5, 2-3 Valley Oak League), Brandon Camara gained 73 on nine rushes, K.C. Brandsted 77 on 10 carries and LaPertche finished with 31 yards.
“Casey and Cristian did an absolutely amazing job tonight,” said Camara, Sonora’s workhorse. “Cristian did his jobs well and Casey ran the ball great. And K.C. Brandsted ran the ball really hard, too.”
Holman got the Cats back to within a touchdown with a 1-yard keep late in the third quarter.
With 7:59 left in the contest, Sierra regained its two touchdown lead.
Moments later, Sonora turned the ball over for the third time in the game and soon after Sierra scored and seemed to have an insurmountable 47-28 lead with 6:10 left.
But the never-say-die Cats came fighting back.
On fourth-and-7 from the Sierra 25, Holman found Kade Barajas in the flat for a first down. But Barajas wouldn’t be stopped there. With a determined effort, Barajas dove ball first into the endzone to make it 47-35 with 4:04 left.
The Cats got the ball right back when Camara stripped a Sierra ball carrier and recovered the fumble.
“I just saw the running back take the handoff, he came straight up the field at me,” said Camara. “Someone grabbed him and I ripped the ball out, saw it on the ground and jumped on it.”
A few plays later, Camara at fullback plunged in from the 1 to make it 47-42 with 2:10 left.
But Sierra snared Cayden McLaughlin’s well-placed onside kick and the Timberwolves (7-1, 4-1 VOL) were able to run out the clock.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve said this but penalties and turnovers killed us again,” said Craig. “But the kids don’t quit. It’s been that way all season long. The Turlock game, the Paradise game … If they can play that fourth quarter, for all four quarters, rather than just that one, we would be winning a lot more games.”
“We started off slow and gave up some big touchdowns we shouldn’t have and made some fumbles that cost us,” said Camara. “We came on hard in the second half and never gave up, but too late. We just kept fighting. We never give up. That’s what this team’s about. We never give up no matter what and that’s what we did tonight.”
“We knew they had a lot of talented guys … especially Cota,” said LaPertche. “Like all season, we don’t give up and we were down like three touchdowns, but we still came back and almost won this game. It was a hard game, like every game we play.”
Sonora needs to win its final two games (home vs. East Union Friday, at Oakdale Nov. 2) to qualify for a shot to make playoffs. Five wins qualify the Cats, but does not guarantee a spot. If the Cats miss the playoffs, there will be a bunch of happy Division IV teams — happy not to face the Cats in postseason.
Sonora has faced just two likely D4 teams this season, Calaveras (37-28 victory) and Lathrop (40-3 win). The rest of their games have been against upper division, higher-enrollment schools.
The Cats now prepare for their final home tilt against East Union (1-7, 1-4 VOL) on Friday.
“We’re trying to find two wins and we start this week with East Union,” said Craig. “We’ll work this weekend on putting a game plan together and start Monday on beating East Union and we’ll go from there.”