CRESCENT CITY — The Justin-Siena football team was within 10 minutes of pulling off another stunning upset in the CIF North Coast Section Division 4 playoffs, but the 10th-seeded Braves’ improbable playoff run came to an end Friday evening with a 37-21 quarterfinal loss to No. 2 seed Del Norte.
The Braves led 21-20 early in the fourth quarter, but the Warriors (9-2) rallied off 17 unanswered points to avoid the upset.
It was yet another close finish for the Braves, who gave third-year head coach Brandon LaRocco his first playoff win last week with a 53-28 upset at No. 7 Piedmont.
“I have never had a team that fought like these guys do,” LaRocco said. “It didn’t matter what game, it didn’t matter who we were down to. They always fought, and this game was one and the same.”
It was an up-and-down season for the Braves (5-7), but they finished strong by winning their first-ever game against Napa High in Week 9 and avenging a season-opening loss at Piedmont two weeks later.
“We have been kinda climbing back over the past three years and I just give all the love to these seniors for getting us to our first playoff win since I have taken over as head coach,” LaRocco said. “It just means the world to me. These guys have worked their tails off this season and it shows. Their unrelenting competitiveness is a characteristic that even championship teams that I have coached haven’t had. I am just so proud of them.”
Del Norte was led by do-it-all athlete Ethan Price, as it has been all season.
The senior quarterback broke off a 45-yard keeper up the middle of the field on the second play of the game. That run ended up being no more effective than a punt, as Justin-Siena linebacker Miles Williams caught the speedster and forced a fumble that the Braves recovered.
But Justin-Siena quarterback Barrett Donohoe and his high-powered offense stalled out of the gates and the Braves were forced to punt.
Price, who was also used as a running back, tight end and deep-threat wide receiver, lined up as the latter on Del Norte’s second drive and caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from OJ Calleja. The Warriors’ lone completion of the game was followed by an extra-point attempt that came up just short.
Justin-Siena’s passing game caught fire after that, however, and Donohoe would pick apart the Del Norte’s soft zone all evening.
On the Braves’ second drive, the senior found Michael Fitzgerald over the middle for a 26-yard completion before going back to the senior running back for a 12-yard touchdown pass. Tyler Brazil put just enough power into the kick to spin the ball just through the uprights and give the Braves an early 7-6 lead.
The Warriors continued to have little trouble on offense in the early going, however. Senior running back Sebastian Puente needed only four carries to find the end zone, scoring on a 12-yard burst two minutes into the second quarter. Del Norte went for a two-point-conversion, but a pass to the corner of the end zone on a fade landed harmlessly to the ground to keep the score 12-7.
After each team punted, the Braves took over with three minutes left in the half. Donohoe connected with one of his favorite targets, Luigi Albano-Dito. En route to a game-high seven receptions for 109 yards, the senior wide receiver caught a pass on a crossing route and found room down the sideline for a 43-yard pickup deep into Warriors territory. After two short-yardage running plays, Donohoe found Fitzgerald in the back of the end zone on a 12-yard scoring pass. Alan Romero Vega blasted the extra point through the uprights for a 14-12 halftime lead.
The Braves received the kickoff to open the third and picked up a couple of first downs, but weren’t able to take advantage. Del Norte took over and got a 50-yard carry from Kobe Mitchell on an inside draw. He was stopped by Conrad Say at the 5-yard line, but finished off the drive with a touchdown run on the next play. Puente ran in the two-point-conversion to push the Warriors’ lead to 20-14.
Justin-Siena didn’t have much success with its running game, but the air attack continued to work on a night when Donohoe would finish with 218 yards on 18-of-25 passing. He connected on passes of 3, 18, 11 and 11 yards to quickly move the Braves down the field, and then capped the drive with a 5-yard keeper around the left side. Vega put the Braves back ahead, 21-20, with a well-struck extra point.
The momentum was short-lived for the Braves, however, as Price returned to the forefront of the Warriors’ offensive attack. Back at quarterback, he found a hole and headed for the end zone. Say caught him again, this time at the 1-yard line after a 63-yard gain, but Calleja powered in on the following play to put Del Norte ahead for good. Price got a pitch and ran it in for the two-point-conversion and 28-21 lead.
The Braves had the ball with eight minutes remaining when they ran out of magic. They got 3 yards on runs by Fitzgerald and Donohoe, but a third-down pass fell to the grass field. The special teams unit looked to punt the ball away, but the snap flew well over punter Shane Rosenthal’s head and bounced out of the back of the end zone for a safety for 30-21 Warriors lead.
Price tacked on a 40-yard touchdown scramble around the left side after that to kill any chance of a miracle comeback for the Braves.
Justin-Siena should return some solid pieces for next season. Top receiver Solomone Anitoni, running back Francisco Morales-Florentino and defensive standouts Marcus Nunes and Williams are only juniors, and sophomore Noah Young also shined on defense.
“These seniors did a hell of a job of setting an example for what it takes to be successful,” LaRocco said. “The work they put in in the weight room this offseason was the difference, especially up front. I hope the juniors and the sophomores look at that example and pass on the torch. Now it is time for the juniors to run with it.”