AMERICAN CANYON — There’s a piece of paper in the locker room at American Canyon High School. On it is a team goal.
The goal is a big one: win a CIF Sac-Joaquin Section football championship.
American Canyon took a step in that direction by getting big plays from its defense in the red zone and a rushing offense that produced 289 yards in the first round of the Division III playoffs on Thursday night.
Eddie Byrdsong ran for two touchdowns, Jose Lopez kicked a 39-yard field goal with seven minutes to play, and the defense responded with turnover-forcing hits and big stops in a 17-10 win over River Valley-Yuba City at Wolf Den Stadium.
“Overall, it was a good team effort,” said LaVar Seay, the Wolves’ quarterback-outside linebacker, who was named as the Offensive Player of the Year in the Solano County Athletic Conference earlier in the week. “Coach (Larry Singer) emphasized how defense was going to win this game. We had to put in the work and the effort. We had to keep coming out here, grinding. We couldn’t give up on each other.”
American Canyon (7-3), the No. 7 seed, will take a seven-game winning streak on the road next week as it will play at No. 2 seed Manteca (9-2) on Nov. 17 in the quarterfinals. Manteca won its first-round playoff game, 62-21, over No. 15 seed Rio Americano-Sacramento on Thursday.
The Wolves were stellar on defense, recovering two fumbles and intercepting a pass despite being on the field for what seemed like an eternity. River Valley (7-4), the No. 10 seed, ran 37 plays to American Canyon’s 22 in the first half alone, outgaining the Wolves 236 yards to 152 in total offense.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game coming in,” said Singer. “That team, man, they were pounding us, and leaning on our guys, and trying to wear us down and finish us. But our boys stepped up. We had a lot of guys – great individual efforts.
“Our scout team busted their butt all week, trying to get us prepared for this. Because that’s a hard offense to mimic.
“We came out in the second half and decided that we were going to take care of business. We told them, ‘It’s a one-game season right now. Next week, it’s a brand new season. One game – you either win or go home.’ The boys want to keep going, and you saw that.”
Kekoa Wilson recovered a River Valley fumble on a fourth and 2 play that resulted in a 1-yard loss in the first quarter.
American Canyon scored on its ensuing possession, driving 52 yards in five plays, the march culminating in Byrdsong’s 8-yard touchdown run with 2:38 to go in the opening quarter. Other big plays during the drive were Seay’s 30-yard pass to Adrian Anicete and Brenden Johnson’s 14-yard run.
River Valley made it a 7-7 game in the first half, as Rex Baker capped a nine-play, 65-yard drive by scoring on a 7-yard run with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter.
“This (River Valley) team is a big team, they’re a physical team, they like to pound it on the ground and they like to spread it out through the air,” said Lucas Gramlick, the Wolves’ left tackle-defensive end, who was selected as the Lineman of the Year in the SCAC. “The emphasis this week was mostly on defense. We trained as hard as we could in three days.
“It’s a good victory. When you’re able to scrape one by like this, and win those close games, it just gives you more confidence that we can finish, we can finish a game.”
Wilson recovered another fumble at the American Canyon 8-yard line after River Valley had moved the ball all the way from its 9-yard line, covering 14 plays and eating all kinds of time off clock.
River Valley turned the ball over on downs after driving to the American Canyon 24-yard line late in the first half.
With 8.2 seconds to play in the half, Seay completed a 38-yard pass to Robbin Brown. With 1 second to go, Seay was sacked for a 3-yard loss to end the half.
“We knew it was going to be a defensive battle,” said Singer. “That coach over there (Dave Humphers, who co-coaches River Valley with Brennan McFadden) is a legend, with the stuff that he’s done. We knew that we had our work cut out for us. And the boys accepted that and they embraced it and they ran with it.
“(River Valley) was recognizing some stuff that we were doing, so we had to make adjustments to that. We got back down to doing what we do, and that’s what got us going.”
Hunter Snyder made a big stop on fourth and 3 from the American Canyon 8-yard line. Snyder dropped Chris Johnson for a 1-yard loss, forcing the Falcons to turn the ball over on downs.
American Canyon scored on its next possession on Byrdsong’s 1-yard run, which capped a 91-yard drive in five plays, giving the Wolves a 14-7 lead. Kama Aalona, named as the Back of the Year in the SCAC, ran 75 yards on second down to account for the key play in the drive.
River Valley missed on a 36-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
Lopez’s field goal increased American Canyon’s lead to 10 points.
Marcos Topete kicked a 38-yard field goal with 3:21 to play for the Falcons, who had tied for third place in the Tri-County Conference.
Brenden Johnson’s interception sealed it for American Canyon with 1:05 remaining.
“This is a tremendous group,” said Singer. “They’ve put in a ton of effort. They’ve never complained. They wanted to get it done. Our (defensive backs) did a great job of stepping up and recognizing sets and responsibilities and getting things done.”
Aalona led the Wolves’ rushing offense with 112 yards on nine carries. Byrdsong ran for 83 yards on 15 attempts. Johnson had 47 yards on eight carries. Seay had 47 yards on seven attempts.
River Valley had 162 yards passing and 269 yards rushing.
“We played together,” said Seay. “The linemen did their job. Everyone did their job.”
“A big part of it is just everybody doing their assignment,” Gramlick said of the defense, “executing their assignment individually.”
Singer gave credit to his staff and all the work they have put in.
“Coach (offensive coordinator Chris) Yepson called a great game and Coach (defensive coordinator Kirk) Anderson made some great adjustments for some stuff that we didn’t see in film, some stuff (River Valley) saved for playoffs,” Singer said. “Hats off to my coaching staff for recognizing those things and being able to make adjustments.”
In other first-round games in the 16-team Division III bracket:
* No. 1 seed Oakdale beat No. 16 McNair-Stockton, 56-12.
* No. 9 Vanden-Fairfield beat No. 8 Yuba City in double-overtime, 34-33.
* No. 5 Vista del Lago-Folsom beat No. 12 Cordova-Rancho Cordova, 49-20.
* No. 4 Patterson beat No. 13 East Union-Manteca, 63-28.
On Friday, No. 14 Benicia is at No. 3 Christian Brothers-Sacramento and No. 11 Rio Linda is at No. 6 Los Banos.
“First, our mission was to win league outright. We did that,” said Seay. “Now we’re moving on to the next – trying to win a section title. That’s what we’re working toward.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about since Day 1, back in January, when we started lifting and grinding. It’s something we’ve been working for.”
This is American Canyon’s sixth straight appearance in the playoffs.