MODESTO—The Sonora Wildcats wished they played the first half of football on Friday night as well as the second half against the Modesto Panthers.
After spotting the Panthers a 21-7 halftime lead, the Wildcats went on a furious rally and scored four touchdowns in the second half. But in the end, it wasn’t enough and the Panthers sent the Cats home with a 34-33 defeat.
“In the first half we came out and ... it wasn’t our best performance,” said Sonora football star Nolan Dambacher. “If we played the full game the way played the second half, we would have won this game easily.”
That sentiment was shared by most Wildcats.
“We went out there and didn’t play too well in the first half,” said senior Austin Davis. “We came out ready to play in the second half and it would’ve been a different ball game had we played the first half like the second.”
“Everyone could see in that first half we didn’t come out fired up like we should have,” said Wildcat quarterback Dylan Fernandes. “If we would have come out fired up, that scoreboard would have changed dramatically.”
The Cats can hope they play every half the rest of the season like they played the final 24 minutes on Friday.
Dambacher, at fullback, started the Wildcats’ second-half charge.
On the Wildcats opening drive of the third quarter, an 8-play, 64-yard touchdown march, Dambacher was an out-of-control locomotive with the football in his arms. He carried six times for 53 yards and capped the drive with a 2-yard plunge to make the score 21-13.
Three plays later on defense, Dambacher, now at middle linebacker, supplied a vicious hit to Modesto quarterback Iann Miller for a three-yard loss and help force a punt.
On the Panthers’ punt attempt, the snap sailed over Miller’s head for a 29-yard loss, setting up the Wildcats at the Modesto 20.
The Wildcats took advantage six plays later with Dambacher bulling his way into the endzone from four yards away.
“He’s unreal,” said Wildcat quarterback Dylan Fernandes. “You give him the ball and he’s gone. You know he’s gonna get at least five yards or more and you know he’s not going down without three or four guys there to stop him. He’s just unreal.”
The two-point conversion failed and the Wildcats were down 21-19.
After Sonora’s pair of touchdown punches, Modesto punched back with a score to go up 28-19 with 55 seconds left in the third quarter.
The back-and-forth offensive exchange continued.
Sonora took only six plays to score again, this time through the air.
Wildcat quarterback Dylan Fernandes hit Christian LaPertche with a quick pass for a 12-yard touchdown to cap a six-play, 57-yard drive.
With 11:25 left in the game, the Wildcats trailed 28-26.
The Panthers’ offense again went on the march through the air and moved the ball down to the Cats’ 19.
Miller, who threw for 252 yards on the game, fired a first-down pass which was headed for another completion.
But Cat linebacker Brandon Camara had plans of his own.
“Coach Craig was yelling at me at halftime because of the curl kept getting caught,” said Camara. “So I saw the same play where the receivers run a switch pattern. I saw my guy coming and I played off and pretended like I wasn’t covering him. I saw the QB cock back and throw so I went and caught it — and then I wanted to score.”
After his interception, Camara wasn’t going to be denied his touchdown. He stiff-armed one defender to the turf, then juked another on the sideline on his way to an 87-yard touchdown.
“He’s an animal,” said Dambacher. “We were talking about it at halftime, where he needed to be on that route and he read it perfectly. He knew what they were gonna do on that play, he called it out before the snap. He read the quarterback, picked him and took it for six. It was a good run.”
“It was a huge momentum shift for us,” said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. “You could feel the excitement on our sidelines. It was an uphill battle, but we came all the way back and took the lead. Our energy level felt really good at that point.”
After Sean Adams hit the extra point, the Wildcats led 33-28 with 9:41 left.
But Modesto had the knockout blow and pushed across one more touchdown with 3:18 remaining for the winning score.
One last drive for Sonora ended on downs at the Modesto 34.
“I wish we would’ve played a full game,” said Craig. “If we played a full game it might have been a different outcome, but I don’t know. We had to wake some guys up at halftime and make some adjustments. Really we felt sound about our game plan, it’s just that we weren’t executing it. We were almost sleepwalking out there.
“I felt like we played very well in the second half. We made some adjustments on defense to stop a couple of things they were doing to us and our offense moved the ball real well. I thought we played hard in the second half."
The Wildcats pounded Modesto with their smashmouth rushing attack for 273 yards on 45 carries with Dambacher leading the way gaining 140 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.
Also for Sonora (1-1), Camara had 80 yards on 12 attempts and Fernandes gained 14 yards and a touchdown on eight hard-fought carries. Fernandes also threw for 71 yards and a touchdown.
“Dylan really stood out for us tonight,” said Craig. “He really took a beating out there. He got hammered play-after-play and just continued to play hard, make the right reads and do the things we asked of him. He did really well tonight.”
In the first half, Fernandes started the scoring for Sonora with a 15-yard run into the endzone.
The points were all but nullified in 17 seconds as Modesto returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards to tie the game.
The Wildcat defense held Modesto to just five rushing yards on 32 attempts. Sonora gained 344 total yards to 257 for Modesto.
“We weren’t as enthusiastic as we should have been coming into this game,” said Dambacher. “We weren’t excited and they were. I think we were pretty confident we were gonna win, but they’re a good team and you can’t come out like that against a good team.”
“I think we showed a lot of heart and a lot of teamwork,” said Fernandes. “We were picking each other up left and right, we played hard to the whistle and we played for each other. I think we showed a lot of heart and brotherhood in that second half.”
Sonora next will play the Calaveras Redskins on Friday night in San Andreas. The teams last season played a heart-racing overtime contest in which the Cats were fortunate enough to escape with a 49-48 victory.
“I think our seniors remember a lot about Calaveras and how that game went,” said Craig. “I hope they learn that they can’t come out and play football while sleepwalking. They’ve got to be prepared mentally and physically and come out ready to go. I think they learned that tonight.”