OAKDALE - After the first half of Friday night's season-opening football game, Sonora trailed Oakdale 21-0 and head coach Bryan Craig told his Wildcats at intermission they would discover a lot about themselves in the next two quarters.
What the Wildcat players figured out, was that they don't quit, their combined heart was the size of their hometown, they were tougher than they thought and they could throw the football - and throw it well.
Sonora, long known for its smash mouth, physical ground attack, went to the air again and again Friday night for the majority of their yards.
The Wildcats charged back and mostly dominated the second half, but the rally in Oakdale's Corral fell short and the Wildcats lost 28-14 in the 97th meeting between the longtime rivals.
"It was a blood bath," said Wildcat senior quarterback/linebacker Serge Kiriluk. "We just dug down deep inside and found we had a lot of heart. I didn't think we had that much heart as a team, it impressed me so much. Down 21-0 and to comeback and beat them 14-7 in the second half, I think we should have won that game."
"We all had a good talk with our coach at halftime and he told us we're going to find out who we are in the second half," said Wildcat senior safety/slotback Bryce Sanguinetti. "And we did, we're a lot tougher than we thought we were."
Craig was smiling post game not because he was happy his team lost, but for what he saw in the second half.
"We lost by two touchdowns, but it was the effort we put forth is why I'm smiling," Craig said. "We went into this game pretty banged and up and our goal was to come in here and compete. If we could win the game great, but we wanted to compete and our kids didn't stop competing until the game was over. The heart that was involved in our team tonight … I was so proud of their effort."
Kiriluk, who started at quarterback, and linebacker, instead of fullback due to an injury earlier in the week to junior signal-caller Sammy Page, came out firing in the third quarter.
He fired an 11-yard completion to Sanguinetti. He rolled out to his left on the next play and found sophomore fullback Bradley Canepa near the opposing sideline for a 24-yard pickup. On second down, he rolled to his right and found Kahale Warring for an 18-yard gain.
Kiriluk finished the drive himself, keeping from 5 yards out and forcing himself over the goal line, physically splitting through a pair of Mustangs at the 2.
The score put the Cats on the board, trailing 28-7 with 8:16 left in the third quarter.
"What a warrior," Craig said of Kiriluk. "Look at him. His jersey is pulled out, he's solid sweat, he's got blood on his pants - he's a warrior. He threw the ball and played linebacker for us on the other side. I don't think he came off the field but a handful of times."
The Wildcats drove down the field on their next drive, but stalled at Oakdale's 13.
Sonora didn't stall on the following possession, throwing seven times in 10 plays to cover 86 yards. Kiriluk completed three straight to three different receivers, Wyatt Faughnan for 10 yards, Thomas Nelson for 23 and Canepa for 19 to move the ball into Oakdale territory.
After a pair of penalties put the Wildcat drive in doubt, Kiriluk under massive pressure lofted a perfect strike to Lucas Pallante for 37 yards down to the Mustang 6.
The drive ended with a bit of luck for the green and gold.
Kiriluk fired a pass that deflected of Sanguinetti's hands but right to Pallante's waiting grasp about five yards deeper in the end zone for a touchdown.
"Just like we drew it up, tip the ball and Oakdale will not be expecting that," Craig said. "That old saying where it's better to be lucky than good, I think on those two opportunities it was better to be lucky than good," referring to a similar play in the first half that went for a first down.
Kiriluk finished the game completing 15 of 32 passes for 251 yards. Last year it took Sonora through its sixth game to reach 32 passes (34).
"There are some people that say we should be throwing the ball more, tonight we did it out of necessity more than out of our game plan," Craig said. "But it's nice to be able to go to that. To know you can do that, especially when the other team knows you have to do it, is a nice feeling. So if we can get our running game going a little bit better than it was tonight, get healed better than we were tonight, I think we're gonna be fine."
Sonora finished with 404 yards compared to Oakdale's 346. The Mustangs churned out 276 on the ground on 40 attempts, but it was the big plays that bit the Wildcats.
Oakdale scored its first two touchdowns in the first quarter on a pair of long passes (33 and 37), the only Mustang completions in the game. The third touchdown came early in the second quarter shortly after a Wildcat turnover deep in their own territory.
"Take away the first quarter, we win that game - It's as simple as that," Sanguinetti said. "We gave up a couple of passes that decided the game. But other than that, we played tough."
"We played great, with great effort, we just weren't on top of things in the first quarter," said Wildcat senior nose guard/fullback Lane Mierop. "But second half, we came out fighting and brought it to them. We don't give up. We just kept fighting the whole time."
Faughnan led Sonora in rushing with 78 electric yards on just four totes, including a breath-taking, literally for Sonora fans, a 40-yarder that started with him somehow avoiding a Mustang tackler in the end zone and exploding up the sideline. He also had two catches for 37 yards.
Warring was Sonora's leading receiver with five grabs for 68 yards in his first ever game.
Sonora next week will host Lodi on Friday at 7:30 p.m. for its home opener. The Flames defeated Sonora's fellow Mother Lode League foe Amador 35-21 on Friday.
"We get healthy going forward and I feel really good," Craig said. "Having this game at the beginning as a measuring stick to where you're at, I think it was great for us."