At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the end of the season for the Sonora High School Wildcats was in sight. For the entire game, they never held a lead. With five minutes remaining, they were down by six points. Then the outstretched fingertips of senior wide receiver Evan Bearden brought them salvation.

The 28-27 score would hold, earning the Wildcats a berth into the CIF Sac Joaquin Division V semi-finals.

“It was sick,” Bearden said after the game, stunned by the victory and the deep freeze that had settled over the field. “Unreal.”

It almost wasn’t real, said Coach Brian Craig after the game.

With less than a minute to go in the game, Foothill High School had the ball. Third down, 11 yards from the endzone.

A pass went up, and Sonora senior defensive back Bryan Wynne was there to receive it. Seconds before, a defeat seemed sure. Between jumping and screaming fans, one woman turned to a friend and said, “What? We won!”

“It just says so much about this team,” Craig said. “We just keep battling until the very end. Our backs were against the wall but that didn’t stop us from finishing.”

Dunlavy Stadium was not as filled as the previous game against cross-county rival Summerville High School. There were some supporters of the opposition in the crowd, despite Foothill High School being more than 100 miles away. And at the start of the game, temperatures had already dipped below 50 degrees, with many people in the stands wrapped in blankets, drinking hot coffee.

The fifth seed Foothill High School Mustangs (8-3) defeated No. 12 Pioneer High School in the first round of the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs 55-12 at their home stadium in Sacramento.

The Sonora High School Wildcats (6-4) were the fourth seed in the playoffs, which earned them a berth into the quarterfinals and a bye-week last Friday. Before the start of the game, Sonora was on a six game win streak.

According to Craig, Sonora High School’s defense may have been their most important asset in earning the Mother Lode League championship. And in the first plays of Friday’s game, the Wildcats’ defense showed the Mustangs their defensive effort could be formidable.

In early first half action the Mustangs were unable to gain a first down and drove a punt to about the 45-yard-line in Sonora High School territory.

The Wildcats then earned a first down, but their forward momentum was blocked by a staunch defensive effort and they were forced to punt. The Wildcats nearly earned a safety on their next defensive outing, but the Mustangs’ precarious positioning on the one-yard line was saved by a pass interference call on senior defensive back Devun Battle.

Mustang quarterback William Goebell was instrumental in leading a steady charge upfield. A long pass to wide receiver Traivon Drummer would put Foothill High School into scoring position, and Goebell scored a touchdown with about three minutes remaining.

For the first time since the start of Mother Lode League play, Sonora High School was behind on the scoreboard. The Wildcats were surprised by the deficit, and the intensity of the competition was unleashed. Just after the next kickoff, a shoving match erupted on the field. The crowd yelled, but there was no flag.

By the start of the second quarter, the Wildcats neared the endzone with the chance to tie, but a fumble ended the threat.

In the next plays, it appeared that the Wildcats redeemed themselves by collecting a fumble from Goebell, but the officiating staff ruled the ball was down.

The Wildcats caught an interception moments later on their own 10-yard line and generated a cry of support from the crowd. But then then another turnover -- one of the few blights on their play throughout the season -- struck the Wildcats again when they fumbled on their own one yard line.

One play later the Mustangs earned a touchdown and after the Wildcats blocked the PAT, the score was 0-13.

Before the half was over, Sonora High School found themselves in scoring position again when senior running back C.J. Castleman broke out on a 40-yard run to about the 10-yard line. Junior running back Elijah Macdonald made it official only a few plays later, and kept the Wildcats in contention before the end of the half.

The Mustangs seemed intent upon maintaining their margin against the Wildcats however, and multiple incisive throws propelled them upfield. 17 yards from the endzone, Goebell mimicked a pass maneuver before running the ball in himself to give Foothill another touchdown. A successful two-point conversion evened their earlier PAT mishap. Before the end of the half, Gookin attempted a hail-mary pass, which was intercepted. The Mustang player was brought down before he could widen the lead even more, ending the half 7-21.

In the second half, it took the Wildcats less than three minutes to score. Senior Karson Clifton barrelled through the Mustang defense into the end zone, bringing the score to 14-21.

But the Mustangs were quick in their response. Led by a catch and run from junior wide receiver Sade Keyes, Goebell scored another touchdown a few minutes later. The PAT attempt was blocked again, bringing the sore to 14-27.

On the next drive, Clifton broke through again, dragging a Mustang player at least five yards before he fell over in the end zone and gave the Sonora High School another score.

On the next drive, the Wildcats seemed poised for another possession. An intentional grounding foul on Goebell put the Mustangs about 30 yards away from a first down, but like so much of the game, the Wildcats were unable to contain him. A long run earned the Mustangs a first down, but another round of deep pressure from the Sonora High School defensive backfield finally kept the Mustangs in check and they turned the ball over on downs.

The fourth quarter would ultimately be a “make or break” moment for the Wildcats. A fumble by the Mustangs earned them possession again, and senior Evan Bearden powered through a reception on a crucial fourth down to keep the Wildcats in contention. Bearden earned them the needed score minutes later, and a successful PAT put the Wildcats up by a single point. There was only a minute remaining when the Mustangs propelled themselves through penalties and multiple defensive stops to the one yard line. Two penalties brought them back 10 yards, and then Wynne intercepted the ball to win the game.

According to Maxpreps.com, first seed Colfax High School beat eighth seed Los Banos High School 56-21.

Craig said it would be a “tough” game, but the team would prepare to avoid a loss to the same team that ended their division championship hopes last year.

The game will be played at Colfax High School.

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