CALISTOGA — As the hordes of happy Calistoga High football fans headed to the parking lot after a 46-0 victory over Laytonville on Saturday night, the Wildcats had rushed to the weight room.
Inside the closed doors, loud chants of “Joey! Joey! Joey!” could be heard rumbling through the walls. Players could be seen through the transparent doors jumping up and down around Joey Russo, the senior who had helped start the blowout with a huge takeaway.
“Usually the start of our seasons are kind of rough – not in the sense that we don’t get along, but we’re kind of still picking up the pieces and getting used to playing with each other,” Russo said. “I think throughout the season as we’ve progressed, we’ve definitely showed we’re all connected. If I miss a tackle, I know for sure I have a couple of guys that will come behind me to get them.
“It’s just good to know that we all bonded together.”
With smoke from the Calistoga Cubs snack shack filling the air on a beautiful evening, Laytonville had to quickly punt on its opening drive, but the Warriors quickly snapped up a fumble on Calistoga’s first possession of the game.
Fernando Rios picked up two sacks on the next Laytonville drive, however, and the contest turned on the following punt. A second bad snap on the drive flew over the punter’s head and, while people were scrambling for the ball, Russo waited for his opportunity to strike. The defensive back scooped up the ball and returned it 26 yards for the game’s first touchdown. The two-point-conversion fell short, but Calistoga was up for good, 6-0.
“I waited back and saw everyone kind of crash down, and I knew I was blitzing,” Russo recalled. “So when I saw the ball come up in the air, I was like ‘OK, something might happen here.’ I decided I was going through the hole that was wide open in front of me. That’s when I just picked it up and saw the touchdown was right there. I had to take it in, ya know.”
The Wildcats’ offense didn’t hit many big plays, as quarterback Christian Caldera and Co. had to grind for yardage. But Caldera and Rios traded carries back and forth down the field on their second series, and Caldera bounced around the right side of the line for the touchdown.
Laytonville’s passing attack sputtered all night against a Calistoga secondary that always seemed in the right place, as quarterback Tyson Anderson completed only 9 of 28 passes for 92 yards. So the Warriors decided to feed the biggest player on the field, Koda Nielsen, as he received a majority of the visitors’ carries. The linebacker and fullback had many solid runs, but the Wildcats quickly focused in on tackling his lower body and not taking the bruiser up at pad level. Nielsen led Laytonville with just 42 yards on 17 carries.
The Wildcats had a key piece on the field for the first time this season – Jesus Rojas-Mendoza, who had missed the first half of the season with a nagging injury. The senior helped on Calistoga’s third scoring drive with runs of 16 and 7 yards, en route to 41 yards on eight carries for the night. Caldera capped off the 11-play drive with a 6-yard touchdown rush, but again the two-point conversion was stopped short.
“Christian makes everybody better, and now they’re believing that they’re better, and the addition of Jesus, it was a big thing tonight,” Calistoga head coach Jim Klaczak said. “The kids respect him and he’s a hell of a player. When he comes up and starts running like that, it just fills everybody up. The kids go ‘OK, we don’t have to rely on Christian. He’s awful good and he does a lot of good things for us, but you know what we have other players that can get us to that point. I think that is what will carry us through these next three games.”
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The Wildcats turned the contest into a rout in the third quarter. They took the opening kickoff and marched down the field and finished the drive with a Caldera 1-yard touchdown keeper. Laytonville was forced to punt, but a snap over the punter’s head gave the Wildcats the ball on the Warriors’ 1.
After two runs by Rojas-Mendoza were stopped with no gain, disaster almost struck. Caldera attempted to hand off to Rojas-Mendoza on the right side, but an apparent mix-up forced the signal caller to do a 180-degree spin move and scored the 1-yard touchdown around the left side instead.
Calistoga’s defense kept a zero on the board for another drive and the Wildcats offense had four minutes to work. Caldera hit his lone two passes of the game on the drive, connecting with Rojas-Mendoza on a screen and hitting Isaac Garcia on a 35-yard bullet down the middle of the field for the touchdown.
Laytonville decided to return the ball from its own 1 on the following kickoff, but didn’t manage to make it out of their red zone. Russo made his second major defensive play for the game, diving to intercept a tipped pass.
“That pick was pretty close. I didn’t think I’d get that pick, I kind of just dove for it at the last second.” Russo said. “I am glad it fell in my hands. We got another touchdown right after that and it felt good.”
Caldera added his fifth rushing touchdown and sixth overall score for the game with a 6-yard run three plays later.
Caldera finished with 101 rushing yards on 18 carries.
The Calistoga defense then stopped the Warriors’ longest drive. Anderson attempted to hit favorite target Ethen Luna in the end zone, but Caldera came down with the interception and returned it to midfield.
Calistoga plays the first of three tough games in a row next Saturday when they travel to Marin County to take on defending 8-man North Coast Section champions Branson in Ross.
“The way our schedule was set up, the hardest is yet to come,” Klaczak said. “I tell them we’ve already done 60 practices, we only have 30 more. But those 30 are the most important of the whole year. The kids are getting a little bit better each week and the kids who need to improve are improving. So as long as we continue that upward growth, and then improvement, I can’t complain because the effort is there.
“We give great effort and I think they’re buying in as a team now. We know everybody knows Christian is great and Jesus is great and Fernando is great, but now all of a sudden, whoa wait, this guy Joey steps up. We’ve got other guys starting to step up, too, like Isaac. So collectively now they are becoming a band of brothers, so to speak. That’s what’s going to carry us through this, because this is the gauntlet. With that said, I believe that the league at this point is still fairly even. Branson is the cream of the crop because they’ve proven it, but they’re not invincible.”