There were so many positives to take away from Sonora's opening-season home football clash against Turlock Friday night. But none could overcome the negative on the scoreboard.
The Wildcats rushed for 367 yards, led by senior fullback K.C. Brandsted's career-high 179, and out-gained the Bulldogs by almost 100 yards, but untimely turnovers and penalties cost Sonora in a 24-21 loss.
It's not a bad first-game effort considering: the Wildcats practiced indoors for eight days to avoid smoke from the Rim Fire; the Bulldogs are in Division I; it's their second game of the season; their first game was against Oakdale; and theywon. Enough said.
So it would be easy to lay blame and hand out excuses.
"There are no excuses," said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig, "But ... after this game, we can look at ourselves and think, 'We can play. We're pretty physical. We've got heart and we can come back.' So yeah, we've got some things we can build on. I'm really happy with several aspects of this game, but I'm not happy with the score."
"There was a whole lotta heart on both sides tonight," said Turlock head coach James Peterson. "This was a great high school football game. I appreciated Sonora's sportsmanship. They're a great football team and they're gonna win a lot of football games this year."
Another positive for the Wildcats, they rushed for all those yards despite an inexperienced offensive line.
"We started five guys on the O-line, four juniors (Zerek Saldivar, Brandon Phelan, Michael Howell, Christian Maguire), one senior (Brett McConnell), and none of them have ever started a varsity football game," said Wildcat co-offensive coordinator Kirk Clifton. "And we just beat up a team up from Division I that is expected to win their league. It's exciting yet frustrating, but the O-line deserves major props."
More positives, quarterback Andrew Nessi and the aforementioned Brandsted.
The duo combined to carry the rock 45 out of the 52 times Sonora chose to run. Nessi rushed for 81 yards on 22 totes and Brandsted added a 4-yard touchdown on his 23 attempts.
"Andrew ran the offense really well," Clifton said. "We rushed the ball over 50 times and he made one bad read - that's a pretty good job. And what K.C. did was no surprise to me at all. He's getting a knack for our offense right now."
"We played a great game, we just had too many turnovers," said Nessi, who threw for 50 yards. "Our offense really started to take over and they couldn't do anything. K.C. was a hog. He was blowing through those holes and bowling people over, protecting the ball with both hands. But I am devastated. All of us wanted this game so bad - it's a real heartbreaker."
Turlock scored first on a touchdown pass late in the first quarter and then five minutes later, early in the second quarter, jumped on top 14-0.
After driving deep into Turlock territory on its first three possessions, Sonora finally finished its fourth.
Brandsted gouged the Bulldogs for 16 yards on first down then senior slotback Ryan Puou grabbed an option pitch from Nessi and electrified the Dunlavy faithful. After a great block from receiver Zach Atwood - and in no small mention, on Turlock's best athlete Javon Hogan - Puou sprinted 74 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
"That was glory right there," beamed Puou. "Right when I got the pitch, I saw Atwood take out their corner and I saw daylight. After that, I was running for my life."
Turlock answered with a 23-yard field goal to make it 17-7 with 6 minutes left in the half and, a few minutes later, was looking for more.
Bulldog quarterback Sean Downs rolled to his right, lofted a pass down the middle of the field but Wildcat defensive back Will Collamer leaped in front of the receiver for the interception.
But it was short-lived. On the return, the shifty Collamer received a solid hit and fumbled back to Turlock. But a few plays later, Brandsted, playing at defensive back, picked off Downs just before half.
But the real fun started in the second half and it couldn't have started any better for Sonora.
Cat Cayden McLaughlin booted a soft, squibber that Turlock couldn't handle and fumbled it away to Sonora.
On the ensuing play, Nessi pitched to slotback Kade Barajas who, instead of turning upfield to run, cocked his arm and fired a strike to a streaking Atwood for a 36-yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 17-13.
"That was a great gadget play they hit perfectly right after our fumble," Peterson said. "They had perfect timing and they caught our corner falling asleep. That was a great way for them to get back in the game."
"We kind of got lucky," Craig said. "We didn't want to kick it to that guy back there with the 4.4 speed (Hogan) so we were kicking it to other guys and their guy put the ball on the carpet and we jumped on it."
Turlock put together its winning drive midway through the fourth, but had to hold its breath before going home with victory.
The Bulldogs, who gained just 121 yards in the second half after gaining 260 in the first half, got 44 big ones on a touchdown run to make it 24-13 with 6:53 left in the game.
"We made some adjustments at halftime and we almost completely stopped them in the second half," said Wildcat linebacker and co-captain Steve Lawrence. "They couldn't do much against us in the second, just one play messed us up."
The Cats came back quickly behind Brandsted runs of 28 and 21 yards. A Nessi pass over the middle found Atwood, who made a great grab in traffic, for 34 yards. Brandsted finished the drive with a 4-yard plunge and also ran in the two-point conversion for the final score.
The Wildcats had one last-ditch effort from their own 33 with 3:24 left and got down to the Turlock 25 to attempt a field goal with 3 seconds left. The snap got past the holder and McLaughlin chased it down, did his best Johnny Manziel impersonation and heaved a Hail Mary of sorts that Jake Gustafson answered at the 15 but was dragged down at the 12.
Sonora out-yarded Turlock 466-381, had more first downs 17-11 and had almost eight more minutes of possession (27:58-20:02), to no avail.
"We played our hearts out today," Puou, a co-captain, said. "It was our first game and we made a lot of mistakes but we're gonna make up for it next week. We need to come to practice, take care of business and not let this happen again."