ROSS – The honeymoon has come to an abrupt end for Calistoga.

The Wildcats, who started the year 4-0, lost their second game in six days, getting walloped 74-28 by The Branson School in last Thursday’s North Central League III South matchup at Tom Ryan Field.

Including last week’s result against Rincon Valley Christian, Calistoga (4-2 overall, 0-2 NCL III South) has been outscored 144-56 in league play.

“After a while, our fuel tank hits low,” said Wildcats head coach Mike Ervin, alluding to the team’s diminishing numbers.

The 15-man roster was reduced to 14 with lineman standout Alan Galvez sidelined due to a knee injury. Flavio Fernandez was also out of commission for some of the second half with the shoulder injury that forced him to miss time last season rearing its head again. Jasiel Flores also received treatment late in the game.

Ervin provided some bulletin board material for the Bulls (4-0, 2-0 NCL III South), who have won every game since they began playing prep football in 2016 as a freelance team before joining the NCL III this year. In this week’s Prep Football Previews, Ervin told the Register he wasn’t sure “if they like somebody running the ball down their throat – and we’re going to do that. We’re going to find out how tough they are.”

During the game, some of the Bulls’ coaches were heard discussing that quote and used it as motivation for the early onslaught as they sprinted to a 30-0 lead barely 10 minutes into the first quarter. The most dramatic touchdown might have been Brett Schneider’s fumble recovery at the Calistoga 13, taking a pack of Wildcats with him for the final 10 yards.

The constant for the home team was quarterback Alec Ritch, who was unstoppable against the reeling Wildcats defense, evading tacklers and connecting on nearly every pass with patience and precision. He completed 20 of 24 passes for 288 yards and seven touchdowns and also ran the ball 10 times for 137 yards and two scores.

Ritch spread the ball around to seven different receivers – his favorite, junior Aidan Demian, who hauled in eight catches for 107 yards and three TDs.

Despite waving a red banner of words to incite the Bulls, Ervin wasn’t happy with the extended minutes Branson’s starters saw given a running clock was in effect for most of the contest.

“That’s life,” the coach said. “I can accept getting beat because they are a better team, but when they keep their first strings in so long – it’s just like last week (against RVC). I guess I’m being petty. But when you only have 15 guys and you play all 15, that means more to me than 20-something guys on the sideline.”

Calistoga got on the board in the waning seconds of the first quarter. Daniel Parada snuck behind the defense and brought down a pass from Fernandez over the middle, taking it 47 yards to paydirt.

The Bulls’ defense kept the Wildcats offense in check in the second quarter with three Ritch TD passes – 8 yards to Nicholas Hariri, 34 yards to Schneider, and 10 yards to Demian – expanding the halftime lead to 50-8.

But, like last week, Calistoga made some adjustments, forced Branson to punt on its opening possession of the half, and marched 43 yards on seven plays to score the first points of the half – an 11-yard burst by Jesus Mendoza.

The sophomore running back had 81 yards rushing in the second half and scored all three of his side’s TDs after the break.

After Ethan Castillo knocked the ball out of Ritch’s hands on the Bulls’ ensuing possession, Mendoza took a second-and-goal carry 3 yards across the goal line to make it 14 unanswered to start the second half.

Branson regained its first-half form, though, and put up the next 24 points until Mendoza broke free late in the fourth quarter for a 35-yard TD.

“They’ll keep playing. They won’t stop,” Ervin said of his group in the second half. “To be honest with you, that’s the most important thing these kids won’t do is quit, and it proved again in the second half. Even when they were running the score on us, we kept playing.”

Calistoga will lick its wounds and try to make the most of an eight-day break until its next game, with Tomales in town Friday for a 6 p.m. tilt.

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Yousef has been a sports reporter at the Napa Valley Register since February 2015, and hosts the Napa Register Radio podcast. He is a proud UGA graduate and has written for the Sacramento Bee, The Advocate and the Athens Banner-Herald, among others.