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ROSS – Anyone on hand at Branson got their money’s worth out of Saturday afternoon’s North Central League III South matchup between the host Bulls and the visiting Calistoga Wildcats.

The teams combined for over 600 yards of offense and put up nearly 100 points on the board in a back-and-forth game in which the lead changed hands six times.

While exciting, it was also exact kind of game that Calistoga head coach Jim Klaczak wanted to avoid. He figured his team couldn’t keep pace with Branson’s explosive offensive that entered Saturday averaging nearly 60 points per game this season.

Still, the Wildcats kept up with the Bulls nearly step for step, but ultimately faltered late in a 48-44 loss to the defending North Coast Section 8-man champs.

Calistoga, which dropped to 4-2 on the season and 0-1 in league play, had a chance late in the fourth quarter but couldn’t recover the onside kick after scoring a touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the game.

“Like I told the coaches, I would’ve paid to see this one. It was a hell of a game,” Klaczak said. “Two really good football teams. The difference is, they’re champions and they know how to win. We’re trying to become champions; we’re learning how to win.”

Branson (4-1), which now sits atop the NCL III-South standings at 2-0 after Stuart Hall lost to Tomales on Friday, put up over 400 yards of offensive most of which came courtesy of quarterback Blaze Maier. The senior signal caller passed for 298 yards and four touchdowns with an interception on 15 of 28 passes and ran for 93 more yards and two more scores on 18 carries.

He had touchdown passes of 22, 15 and 41 yards in the first half before his 18-yard scoring strike to Luke George with a little over seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter put the Bulls in the driver seat at 48-38.

Calistoga, which led 30-26 at halftime thanks to two passing and two rushing touchdowns from sophomore quarterback Christian Caldera, answered Branson’s final score in dramatic fashion. The Bulls, punting out of their own endzone with about a minute left in the game, had their kick blocked and recovered by Calistoga at their own 6-yard line. Caldera scored two plays later, his sixth of the game, but the Wildcats couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick, validating Klaczak’s initial hypothesis.

“I hate that,” said the defensive-minded coach as he glanced at the scoreboard.

While the score was much higher than he would’ve liked, the contest showed that the scrappy Wildcats can play with some of the better teams in their division.

“You know what, we have it,” Klaczak said. “We have it and the kids responded to it. That’s why I feel good about it because the kids say, ‘OK, we have to make an adjustment and this is what we’re going to do.’ They responded to it.”

Caldera was up to his usual tricks. He ran for 190 yards on 28 carries and completed 3 of 11 passes for 59 yards. He wasn’t perfect, fumbling late in the fourth and throwing an interception , but he had a hand in every touchdown Calistoga scored, running for four and passing for two others, and hauled in an interception on defense.

Senior Jesus Rojas-Mendoza recorded a strip sack in the first half for Calistoga to go with 21 rushing yards on six carries and one reception for 23 yards. Isaac Garcia and Yuli Caballero were on the receiving ends of Caldera’s two touchdown passes for 21 and 15 yards, respectively.

Senior Fernando Rios added 55 rushing yards on three carries.

The Wildcats had trouble all afternoon guarding the Bulls’ taller receivers, especially 6-2 senior Charlie Goldstein (3 catches for 101 yards), 5-11 senior Luke George (6 catches, 96 yards, 2 touchdowns) and 6-3 senior Scott Roche (4 catches, 92 yards, 2 touchdowns).

While the result obviously wasn’t what they wanted, the Wildcats proved to Klaczak that they are much improved from a year ago and could make some noise in league with two tough foes in Tomales and Stuart Hall waiting in the coming weeks.

Even if this loss puts a large dent in their league title chances, a strong showing the rest of the way should propel them into the postseason.

“If we can beat Tomales and Stuart Hall, we’re still a playoff team,” Klaczak said. “That’s the big thing. We can’t win our league but we can make the playoffs and that’s the big thing for us.”

“If our only loss in league is to those guys, we’ll be good.”

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Sports Reporter

Gus Morris covers St. Helena and Calistoga sports for the Napa Valley Register. Before joining the Register in 2018, he covered collegiate sports for the student publication at the University of Oregon.