PARADISE - The Sonora football team traveled to Paradise Friday and didn't find happiness.
The Wildcats rallied to take a second-half lead but the host Bobcats fought back and scored the game's final 21 points en route to a 28-13 non-league victory.
"We had the skill and heart to beat this team, but we keep killing ourselves," said Wildcat senior K.C. Brandsted. "We played a good game, we were physical and we wanted it - I know everybody out there wants to win bad."
The Wildcats got off the bus, warmed up, kicked off and eight plays and 80 yards later, trailed the Northern Section Division I powerhouse 7-0.
It started scary for Sonora, but that's all it would allow the Bobcats in the first half. Paradise's smash mouth rushing attack gained just 34 yards on 12 attempts the rest of the half.
"Their first drive, they ran on us pretty easily," said Wildcat senior linebacker Steve Lawrence. "But we learned from that, and after, they really couldn't do much on us."
Sonora slowly took control. On their first drive, the Cats earned a first down at the Paradise 30, but consecutive penalties strangled the march.
On its second drive, Sonora appeared primed to tie the game, but turned the ball over at the Bobcat 3-yard line.
But the Cat defense was mighty and forced Paradise to punt from the 6-yard line where the snap sailed over the punter's head and out of the end zone for a safety making it 7-2 with 9:29 left in the firsthalf.
Fueled by slotback Ryan Puou's 46-yard run, Sonora again marched deep into Paradise territory at the 13 before the drive stalled.
Senior placekicker Cayden McLaughlin made sure the Wildcats got points by perfectly booting a 30-yard field goal from the left hash to make it 7-5.
Sonora was on the move again on its next possession, moving down to the Paradise 14 late in the half with the help of three consecutive runs of 12 yards by quarterback Andrew Nessi, 10 yards by slotback Bryce Sanguinetti and 20 yards by Brandsted.
But two plays later, the Cats fumbled away the scoring chance and went into halftime trailing 7-5.
With Sonora still controlling the action, it earned its first lead of the season midway through the third.
After Paradise missed a 32-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half, the Cats struck quick.
Nessi fed his fullback Brandsted on a dive. Brandsted jetted through the line of scrimmage and 10 yards down field shrugged off a tackler and outraced a Paradise defender 80 yards to pay dirt. Nessi ran in the 2-point conversion and the Cats led 13-7.
"It was nice to get the lead because it felt like we had our backs to the wall from the very beginning," said Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. "The next thing you know, it felt like the momentum was going our way, we were controlling the tempo of the game and then K.C. pops that big one and takes it all the way. Like last week against Turlock, K.C. runs the ball hard every time so if they make the slightest mistake, it's gonna hurt and he made it hurt. And he's not a slow fullback."
Brandsted finished with 131 yards on seven carries and now has 310 yards and two touchdowns through two games. Puou added 80 yards on just three carries and is turning into a big-play specialist with 167 yards on five totes in two games - a healthy 35-yard per carry average.
Sonora finished with 277 rushing yards on 35 attempts.
But as much as the Wildcats dominated the middle of the game, Paradise took over the final 15 minutes and its rushing game, that was held silent for two quarters, came roaring to life.
The Bobcats scored on three of their final four possessions to pull away for their first win, while leaving the Cats still seeking that first victory.
"I thought we were wearing on them, but again, we've gotta get this fixed," Craig said. "The penalties and turnovers - We can't put the ball on the ground. When we do that, you can feel the air leave us. We're moving the ball, we're moving the ball and then we put the ball on the ground. A lot of people say it's the kind of offense we run, but our fumbles tonight had nothing to do with the offense we run. We just mishandled the ball."
"I feel like our defense played our hearts out in the first half," said junior lineman Zerek Saldivar. "In the second half, they just wanted the game more than we did. We came out here more physical than we did last week, but we still have a lot of work to do this week."
"We're dying for a win - starving," said junior defensive tackle Christian Macguire. "I wish we could get back on the field right now and play again. I just wanna go."
The Wildcats now turn their attention to the Calaveras Redskins, who they have beaten three straight seasons, but those victories didn't come easy. The Redskins will celebrate their home opener and emotions are sure to be high.
"They're gonna look at our film and see the things we're doing and they're gonna go after those weaknesses," Craig said. "So we're gonna work twice as hard this week to eliminate our mistakes, then go to Calaveras, and hopefully they'll be gone."
"We're gonna ride in there with confidence," Lawrence said. "We're not gonna underestimate them, but we're gonna go in there and we're - it's a good rivalry - gonna go in there and smack them in the face like we've done in the years past. That's how I'm feeling. This whole team wants a win so bad. If we can fix our mistakes, we'll get a win."
Game notes:Sonora defensive back Kade Barajas made an interception on the last play of the first half to deny Paradise a last-second scoring chance. … The Wildcats have fumbled 10 times and lost seven in two games. … McLaughlin averaged 44 yards per punt on four kicks. ... Paradise rallied to beat Sonora in the fourth quarter last season after the Wildcats took a late lead.