After a game in which he was just 18 of 30 passing for 155 yards and one touchdown, sacked six times and picked off three times, including a pick-six on the first drive that set the tone for Vintage’s eventual 48-7 rout, Justin-Siena quarterback Hudson Beers was consoled by his head coach.
“I told him after the game,” Brandon LaRocco said, “‘I’m pretty proud of the way you stuck in there. I know that wasn’t the funnest night for you. You took some shots and they got after you a bit – we’ve got to shore that protection up a bit – but I’m proud of you for staying in there like that. That’s not easy to do.’”
Beers, who came into the Vine Valley Athletic League game averaging about 250 passing yards a night, walked off the field limping after getting sacked by Adrian Martinez and Dylan Smith on back-to-back plays late in the third quarter, his team down 35-7.
He came back on the Braves’ next series and hit Solomone Anitoni with a 12-yard pass before the Crushers (7-1, 4-0 VVAL) bore down on him again. He was sacked by Smith again and, after throwing two incompletions, was picked off by Harrison Barrett for the second time. Beers was also sacked three times in the first half, twice by Bryer Scott and once by Dominic Smith.
Justin-Siena (6-3, 2-3 VVAL) didn’t seem fazed much by Kyle Dandini’s 63-yard interception return for a touchdown on the game’s fifth play, nor Pedja Zivkovic’s tackle-breaking, 15-yard scoring scamper and Jacob Aaron’s conversion run for a 14-0 lead later in the quarter.
Aaron was sacked back to back himself on Vintage’s next drive – first by Grant Koehler and Christian Kappler and then by Marcus Nunes, who stripped the ball and recovered it at the Vintage 14-yard line.
The Braves forced Vintage to punt on its next two possessions, and Beers finally hit favorite receiver Miles Williams with a touchdown pass – a 58-yarder that was deflected into the air and into the arms of the wide-open Williams, who went the remaining 20 yards untouched. James Snoke added the extra point to make it 14-7 with 1:24 left in the half.
The Crushers regained the momentum before heading into the locker room when Cutler Low – one of several Vintage starters who missed practice time due to illness during the week – snagged a 30-yard pass to set up Sam Neal’s 18-yard scoring catch. Tate Salese added the extra point for a 21-7 halftime lead.
Aaron had the Vintage offense rolling in the second half. Two plays after the Crushers took the kickoff, Aaron made a brilliant fake to Zivkovic and scooted 58 yards to paydirt. Koehler blocked the extra point to keep it 27-7. After Justin-Siena went three and out, Aaron turned a broken play into an 11-yard gain, Zivkovic stiff-armed 43 yards to the 7, and Aaron scored standing up from there. Mauricio Castro’s conversion run made it 35-7.
Beers also had several good punts in the game, but handed the duties to Blake Hoban after getting hurt. Hoban’s kick went straight up into the air and Vintage took over at the Justin-Siena 18. Castro swept in from 13 yards out shortly after to make it 41-7 but the extra point was wide right. That kept the margin below the 35-point spread needed to force a running clock. But a 14-play, 82-yard scoring drive capped by Dylan Smith’s 1-yard plunge got the clock running. When the Braves coughed up the ball on the ensuing kickoff, it was apparent they had left it all on the field.
As well as Vintage played in the second half, head coach Dylan Leach thought the first half left plenty to be desired.
“I really think (it was because) we didn’t have a great week of practice, and when you don’t have a great week of practice, this is what’s going to come of it,” he said of the three fruitless second-quarter drives in a row. “We’ve got to fix that and have a great week of practice. It starts with showing up to practice. We had a lot of guys sick. When you go through these weeks when you can’t have all your guys, you’re going through reps with guys who might not be in the game. But every team is going to go through that sick week, and it happened to be ours this week.”
It’s scary that Scott was able to have yet another multiple-sack game despite being one of those sick Crushers. He even lay on the field after a play late in the third quarter before walking off groggy.
“It was just a little hydration issue, and we take deep pride in our hydration factor,” Leach said. “He missed a bunch of practices because he was sick. It is what it is. He’ll be fine.”
Scott credited the Vintage cornerbacks with helping him get his sacks.
“My corners locked (their offensive linemen) down so I would have time to get to their quarterback, but his quick passes were kinda hard to get to. I give credit to our big sophomore, Dylan Smith, too. He’s a beast out there.”
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Otherwise it was business as usual for unpredictable Vintage, which began its first offensive series with Billy Birdsall in the backfield for the first time this season. The fleet senior – who had scored on a hook-and-lateral play the week before at American Canyon – gained 7 and 19 yards to set up the second score, then didn’t play on offense the rest of the night.
“Billy’s a great scout player and he runs the ball in practice and gives our defense fits, and I think we have a pretty decent defense. When that’s the case, I’m going to run him against other teams and see what he does,” Leach explained. “He had two nice runs there to start the game off for us.”
Zivkovic, who along with his 15-yard touchdown had four more carries for 50 yards, looked like he had a lot more carries in him at night’s end.
“It’s just a matter of spreading the ball around,” Leach said. “I just feel like if you’re going to give the ball to one guy every play, everyone’s going to know who’s getting the ball. One of the reasons we do that is because teams have to worry about No. 6 (Castro) and No. 33 (Dylan Smith) and others. Other teams might want to force-feed one guy; I’m not about that. If I can have seven guys with 300 yards rushing, I’m very happy.”
Castro, who had nine carries for 67 yards and his touchdown, would have probably loved to have a 100-yard night but understands Leach’s philosophy.
“We don’t really focus on individuals,” said the team captain. “I want other people to get the ball. I’ll get a couple of yards and then I’ll let other people score and I’ll keep running the ball. It’s not all about one player. We have a lot of guys who have been wanting to run the ball and they’ve proved it in practice and we let them have the ball for a little bit.”
The Battle of Trower Avenue was emotional, especially this first-ever one played at Memorial Stadium.
“We know a couple of people from there so it’s kinda like a rivalry,” Castro said. “We were ready to play and we came out really excited, but I feel like we had a little too much energy. We just had to slow it down a little bit and in the second half we came back and played like we’re supposed to.
“Leach was good with us at halftime. He understood, but he also pushed us. He said ‘Just come out and play how you usually do.’ It was a good game and I’m happy we took the W.”
Anitoni, one of the Braves’ top receivers, had two catches for 22 yards and a couple of decent kickoff returns. But the senior also plays safety and was encouraged that his defense blanked Vintage for most of the second quarter.
“We were trying to get momentum off each other. If you see one player do something good, the rest of the team will step up,” Anitoni said. “It was basically us not making the same mistakes we made last week (in a loss to Napa) and making sure that once they scored, we didn’t give in. We had to keep playing our game, keep playing our best and to not let that faze us. That was our main goal, to not let anything faze us.”
While Vintage visits Sonoma Valley (1-8, 0-5 VVAL) next week, the Braves finally get a bye before hosting American Canyon (7-1, 3-1 VVAL) in their regular-season finale on Nov. 1.
“Obviously we’d like the scores to be a little bit closer to give us a little bit more confidence going into playoffs,” Anitoni added. “But at the end of the day, we made a lot of mistakes and we need to work on them better in practice. Once we let our bodies relax next week, practice hard and watch a lot of film, I think we’ll be ready going into playoffs.”
LaRocco seemed optimistic after playing strong first halves against both Napa and Vintage.
“I thought the defense played pretty well from the end of the first quarter through the second quarter,” he said. “They rotated fresh guys in all the time and we were playing the same 15, 16 guys pretty much the whole game. That’s a challenge, but I don’t mind challenges.
“I thought we fought longer than we did against Napa. I told the guys ‘Whatever happens, don’t stop fighting, just keep fighting all the way through,’ and they never gave up. I’m proud of that. I wish we were a little better on our tackling, though, and we’re still making too many mental mistakes. But it’ll be nice to go on a bye and have time to focus on ourselves as opposed to working on game plans for a week.”