Golden Sierra’s fourth quarter drive for a title ends 30 yards short
LODI — On paper, the Golden Sierra-Le Grand Sac Joaquin Section Division V matchup for the section championship seemed mismatched. The Bulldogs, sporting a perfect 11-0 record, had outscored foes 512-91 while the Grizzlies had lost their first four games before rallying and clinching the title berth with a thrilling overtime win against Mariposa.
Paper isn’t where football games are played.
Behind some late-game heroics and an improbable onside kick recovery, Golden Sierra came within 30 yards of tying the score before being stopped on downs, sealing Le Grand’s 20-13 win at the Grape Bowl.
“I think we really came out and shocked them,” Grizzly quarterback Daniel Lesher said. “I don’t think they (Le Grand) really expected us to come out and fight them as hard as we did. We had our chances we just couldn’t finish it … three times in the red zone and we got just three points.”
Le Grand found pay dirt first, as Ryan Martinez scored on a 1-yard run. The Grizzlies answered as a steady dose of inside running got the ball to the Bulldogs’ 5 yard line. The drive stalled but Brian Cann’s 22-yard field goal cut the lead to 7-3.
“I thought we did a great job of moving the ball all game, we just didn’t finish some drives and that hurt us,” said Golden Sierra head coach John Hilton. “We made some mistakes and Le Grand capitalized on those miscues. It’s one of the reasons they’re undefeated.”
After forcing a punt, the Grizzlies went 11 plays and 50 yards to the Le Grand 14 yard line but came away empty as Cann’s field goal sailed just to the left of the goal post.
“I thought they (Golden Sierra) ran the ball really well against us. They really stuck with their ground and pound and picked up good yardage,” Le Grand head coach Rick Martinez said. “They played tough and we definitely respected them coming in.”
Golden Sierra, with 157 yards rushing on 41 carries. was led by Cameron Stephens who gained 37 on nine carries. Cann added 36 and Brenden Nutt and Lesher each ran five times for 28 yards.
The Grizzlies opened with the ball to start the second half only to fumble four plays into their drive. Three plays later, the Bulldogs found the end zone and took a 13-3 lead.
Down 10, Golden Sierra responded with a nine-play drive capped by Cann’s 33-ard field goal to cut the deficit to 13-6. A 60-yard pass play from Lesher to Nick White keyed the scoring possession. Lesher finished the game with 121 yards on 7-of-11 passing. White hauled in 106 of those on three catches.
“We talked about it at halftime that we wanted to start the second half and just pound the football,” Hilton said. “We felt good running the ball inside between the tackles. We had some penalties and were forced to go to the pass and Nick made a couple of outstanding plays”
After a Martinez 13-yard score put the Bulldogs up 20-6, the Grizzlies looked to respond and got the ball to Le Grand’s 24 yard line before a second fumble ended the drive.
Golden Sierra’s defense forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing possession and five plays later they found the end zone as White hauled in Lesher’s pass and raced 33 yards to cut the lead to 20-13. Que the onside kick and Austin Burrows’ recovery gave the Grizzlies life and a chance to tie the game.
“We work really hard on special teams and honestly we weren’t all that surprised we executed it,” said Hilton. “Then it’s here we go, here comes that cinderella story and we drive it down.”
Golden Sierra moved quickly from midfield to the Bulldog 30 before Lesher’s fourth down pass to White fell to the turf.
“They’re a really tight bunch of guys and we told them after to enjoy the moment and really savor what we accomplished this year,” Hilton said. “We as coaches are super proud of how they played tonight. The guys played hard right down to the end and things just didn’t fall our way.”
Le Grand’s victory gave the program its fourth consecutive section banner.