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DANVILLE — The Vintage Crushers’ first playoff run since 1986 came to an end Saturday night as they dropped a 14-3 defensive slugfest to host San Ramon Valley in the CIF North Coast Section Div. 1 football semifinals.

“I wouldn’t describe it as ‘Cinderella,’” head coach Dylan Leach said after the loss. “It’s too much work that these kids have put in to sit here and say that this is a fluke or some type of Cinderella story.

“It would be Cinderella if we’re not back here on a normal basis. But I have a feeling the Crushers are here to stay and that we’ll just continue this roll and hopefully be here again.”

The eighth-seeded Crushers (10-3) improbably knocked off No. 1 seed Antioch with a stunning 24-21 double-overtime comeback win in the quarterfinals on Nov. 9, but were unable to vanquish No. 4 seed San Ramon Valley (8-4) in a game played three weeks later because of air quality issues from the devastating Butte County fire.

“We knew coming into this that they were going to be a tough team,” Vintage senior cornerback and wide receiver Michael Webber said. “They’re almost a mirror image of us. They’re a good weight room team, they’re strong, they’re disciplined, and we just came up short tonight.”

It looked like the Crushers had another upset in them early on after Mauricio Castro’s 59-yard return of the opening kickoff led to a 21-yard Eddy Gonzalez field goal. But those three points would wind up being the only scoring play of the night for an offense that sorely missed injured quarterback Jacob Aaron.

With Aaron out, the Crushers became much more predictable on offense and were forced to rotate between backup quarterbacks Troy Ghisletta and Billy Birdsall, while Webber and running back Viliami Schaumkel took direct snaps on run-heavy packages.

“It just hurts because we don’t have a throwing quarterback now,” Leach said. “I think they eliminated us offensively. Up front they were just tougher than us.”

With all the changes under center, Vintage fumbled the snap five different times. While they recovered them all, each of those plays went for negative yards and contributed to an array of stalled possessions.

“We just had some miscommunications on offense and turnovers,” Schaumkel said. “We’d chunk ’em for good momentum and would just end up giving them the ball back.”

The first of those snap miscues came at the start of Vintage’s second drive. As Schaumkel went to take a direct snap, the ball flew over his head and was recovered by Castro for a 9-yard loss that stalled the drive before it even got going.

After going three-and-out, the Crushers’ punt traveled only 11 yards, giving San Ramon Valley the ball at Vintage’s 26-yard line.

With a short field to work with, the Wolves capitalized with a bit of trickery on a throwback screen pass from Brandon Cammisa to Griffin Turner that resulted in a 13-yard score.

The Crushers threatened to retake the lead late in the half as they strung together a nine-play drive that took the ball deep into San Ramon territory, but an untimely unsportsmanlike conduct call stalled the drive and altered the momentum heading into halftime.

“I honestly thought that was the momentum changer in the game,” Leach reflected. “It’s 7-3, we’re taking 6 yards a chunk, and then you put us in third-and-17 and we don’t have a play for that.”

And although the Crushers had managed to overcome a 7-0 halftime deficit against Antioch in their previous game, San Ramon Valley used its smashmouth, zone running formula to shorten the game and keep Vintage off the field as much as possible.

The Crushers ran only 18 offensive plays in the second half and looked drained on both sides of the ball as the Wolves’ size and strength advantage wore them down bit by bit.

“Normally that’s what we do to people, too,” Leach said. “But when you line up against some big, strong weight room kids – we pride ourselves in the weight room and they do, too – that’s their ball game. We knew that going in.”

With 6:57 left to play in the fourth quarter and the Crushers needing a stop and score to pull out the win, the Wolves took over at their own 39 and masterfully milked the clock.

Wolves leading rusher Jacob Himan was limited by Vintage’s stout defense throughout almost the entirety of the game, but he rushed for 42 of his 90 yards on the final 11-play drive that culminated in a 2-yard plunge from Noah Thomas and 14-3 lead.

San Ramon Valley had taken nearly five minutes off the clock with that march, causing the home crowd to begin celebrating early.

Even in defeat, the Crushers can hold their heads high after breaking a 32-year playoff-victory drought and winning the inaugural Vine Valley Athletic League championship.

As Leach pointed out, the returning Crushers will be much better off in the long run having had this taste of playoff experience.

“I think that it brings some excitement for the younger kids that got to come up,” said Leach, who estimated that about 21 junior varsity players had a chance to practice with varsity during the playoff run. “Most of these other schools packed their gear away a long time ago.

“So when I’ve got kids who are freshmen practicing against varsity guys, it bodes well for the program moving forward.”

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