Sonora Wildcats supporters enjoyed a high point Friday night just as a freight train hauling multiple cattle cars passed the north end zone at Ripon High in San Joaquin County.
It was third-and-short with Sonora on their own 35-yard-line when 5-foot-8, 150-pound junior running back Justin Morgan broke out of the backfield, shook a couple defenders and broke into the open field then sprinted the rest of the way for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 with 4:52 left in the first quarter.
The Wildcats answered Ripon’s opening score a minute-and-a-half earlier, while the setting sun slanted its rays directly into the eyes of Sonora followers, who used seat cushions and hat brims to shield their eyes from the glare.
Sonora’s defense stood their ground a number of times in the first quarter, denying Ripon’s first efforts to unlock the game. Morgan also returned a kickoff the length of the field to make it Ripon 20 Sonora 14 with 2:39 left in the first period.
“It was everyone blocking that opened that up for me,” Morgan said quietly after the game. “Anybody could have run for that score, the way they blocked for me.”
But Sonora kept making mistakes while Ripon continued to find their groove, running the score to 41-14 by halftime. A Ripon ball carrier romped for another long touchdown at the start of the third quarter to make it 48-14. The final score was 55-14.
“The other team came better prepared than us tonight,” said Aiden Kostlivy, the senior running back who returned several short kickoffs Friday night. “We had the same amount of players this time, but the other team wanted it more than us.”
Ripon quarterback Nico Ilardi was lively as expected, running and passing to keep the Indians moving. Turnovers, including fumbles and a first-half blocked punt returned inside the Sonora 10-yard-line, plagued Wildcats efforts to stay in the game.
Ilardi scored on a quarterback keeper at that point, allowing Ripon supporters to sound off a loud fog horn and chant “Go Big Red!” yet again.
Cool valley breezes after sundown while the last orange twilight faded in the west did not cool off the Indians, who maintained the upper hand the entire second half. A late touchdown with less than five minutes to go made it Ripon 55 Sonora 14 and some Sonora supporters began heading for the exits.
Sonora kept fighting though with Morgan ripping off another long run and junior running back Riley Paz running hard up the middle as the last seconds ticked off. Sonora ended up turning the ball over on downs inside their opponents one-yard-line as the clock expired.
“We just need to practice harder next week and reduce the mistakes,” Morgan said. “We reverse these mistakes and we win these games.”
Kostlivy agreed, saying he and his teammates need to refocus and realize they are one family, and focus on sound, fundamental football.
Bryan Craig, the Sonora head coach, had some private words with his players in the end zone at the end of the game. Later, outside the visiting locker room, Craig shook off any notion that there were positives to take from the first quarter when Sonora stayed in the game.
“We just didn’t look good tonight, not in the first quarter or the rest of the game,” Craig said. “We didn’t execute on either side of the ball. We turned the ball over four times, we had the blocked punt, we missed blocking assignments.
“What this shows is we really need to get back to practice next week and start playing as a team,” Craig. “We’re not playing as a team right now.”
Friday’s result drops Sonora to 0-2 on the season in non-league play. Mother Lode League play begins in early October.
Sonora’s next game is 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, another non-league matchup on the road at Escalon High School, about 45 miles west of Sonora and 10 miles east of Ripon.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.