The Friday night matchup between the Calaveras High School Redskins and the Sonora High School Wildcats was a fight for first place in the Mother Lode League.
And after three touchdowns in the first half, going up 7-21 against Calaveras, the Wildcats proved they could claw their way to the top.
In the final minutes of the game, Calaveras surged upfield in an attempt to earn finals points and potentially even the scoreline.
But with one swift movement of his hands, Sonora High School defensive back Dalton Cuneo dashed their hopes and regained the ball for the Wildcats on an interception.
“I feel like it’s the best we could have done right then. It was my first interception of the year. And now we’ve got one more game next week,” he said.
Calaveras High School coach Jason Weatherby lamented the repeated turnovers, especially the final interception and an early fumble.
“You can’t turn the ball over that many times and expect to compete in the game,” he said.
Sonora High School coach Brian Craig lauded both teams’ defensive efforts, but noted it was the three interceptions and multiple fumbles that earned his team the win.
“That was a tough played game tonight. Our defensive team came to play tonight,” he said.
Even before the game, the fans knew that the match would be the most contested battle of the season. The home stands were dotted with patches of burgundy to support Calaveras, and across the field, Wildcat fans filled the seats.
The teams were unbeaten in the Mother Lode League ahead of Friday’s game.
Though playing at home, Calaveras was considered by some as the underdog. Last year, they fell at Dunlavy Field 59-50 against the Wildcats, and in the past three games, their victories were narrow.
From the opening moments of the game, Sonora High School was intent on earning an early advantage. But home-field intensity could not be ignored.
After receiving the kickoff, a throw to Wildcat sophomore Justin Morgan jump-started the Sonora momentum. Moments later, another reception down the right side, this time to senior wide receiver Bryan Wynne, advanced Sonora High School more than 25 yards upfield.
The Calaveras High School defense brought the Wildcats to a fourth down and short, but on the next play senior Karson Clifton ran the ball into the endzone for the first points of the game.
Calaveras running back Jarrod Biondi broke out on one of his first possessions of the game and ran more than 80 yards downfield. But Wynne advanced on him from behind, and after tearing him to the ground, Wynne gained control of the fumbled football. But Sonora High School fumbled the ball on their own 10-yard-line two plays later, and Calaveras easily converted for a touchdown from senior running back Logan Weatherby.
A swift kickoff-return brought Sonora High School into near-scoring position almost instantaneously.
After a 17-yard pass from senior quarterback Jake Gookin to senior wide receiver Evan Bearden, the Wildcats took the lead again and brought the score to 7-14 with three minutes remaining in the first quarter.
In the second half, the early ferocity of the Redskins seemed to diminish. Two minutes into the second quarter, Gookin broke three tackles for a 25-yard run into the endzone. Just as he scored, the emergency lights of a Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle lit the Sonora High School side of the field as it drove down the street.
The Wildcats retained possession for the ball for much of the rest of the quarter, earning attritional gains on short passes and runs. But led defensively from senior linebacker John Arbuckle, Calaveras was able to stop the Wildcats at a fourth down on the nine yard line.
Sonora High School was unable to earn another touchdown and a 26-yard field goal attempt veered left of the uprights.
The entire second half was an offensive stalemate.
Calaveras roared out of the gate at the start of the third quarter with a driving kickoff return and run, but was unable to convert for a first down. Following a subsequent punt from the Wildcats, the Redskins made an admirable effort to redeem themselves.
A long, line-drive pass to Biondi put them within scoring range, but they were unable to gain a first down in the Sonora High School red zone.
Possession bounced between both teams before Calaveras High School got the ball with about two minutes remaining in third quarter.
Bearden, positioned at defensive end, hesitated on a Calaveras fourth down and a defensive encroachment penalty earned Calaveras a first down. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Wynne swept his fingertips in the way of a Calaveras High School receiver and nabbed another interception for the Wildcats.
And for the rest of the fourth quarter, the stalemate didn’t break. Sonora High School, comfortable to maintain its two-touchdown lead, often would not even position a punt returner to protect from the possibility of a trick play.
Calaveras was unable to break through the WIldcats defense to earn any more touchdowns and narrow the margin.
In the final two minutes, Calaveras initiated a flurry of plays in a last-ditch effort to score. They were able to catch a long pass that advanced them from out of their own backfield and a subsequent pass interference penalty then brought them onto the Wildcats 45-yard line, but an interception snuffed their ambitions again.
After Sonora High School senior defensive back Cuneo’s diving catch, intercepting the ball at the 20-yard line, the Redskins were deflated.
The game ended with no scores in the second half.
Next week, Sonora High School will face off against Summerville High School at Dunlavy Field.
“For us to win the league outright we’re going to have to beat Summerville. They’re going to want to beat us. We’re they’re target,” said Craig.
Cuneo said the team was looking forward to victory and a promising berth in playoffs.
“Hopefully this year is the year. We’re waiting for that ring,” he said.
Calaveras High School will face off against Bret Harte High School at Bret Harte High School.
“We’ve got to get a win to stay in the playoff hunt,” Weatherby said.