RICHMOND — For the second straight season, the Justin-Siena football team had a higher seed scared to death in the second round of the North Coast Section Division 6 playoffs but ran out of magic in the second half.
Top-seeded Kennedy, held to only seven points in the first half, outscored the visiting Braves 35-6 after the break to complete a 42-21 semifinal victory Friday night.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the seniors and the way that they’re committed to this team and to the endeavor that we all embarked on together,” said Justin-Siena head coach Brandon LaRocco. “You know the leadership, the toughness, and the willingness to sacrifice for the team. I’m just incredibly proud of the seniors. They really helped us take that next step.”
A year ago, the Braves took a 14-12 lead into halftime against top-seeded Del Norte of Crescent City before a late rally spelled the end for Justin-Siena.
For the 2019 Braves (8-4), this was a season of unknowns. They had lost some key seniors from the year before and weren’t expected to make much noise. Preseason questions such as “will they be able to deal with a couple of tough nonleague games?” were sharply answered with huge wins against Piedmont and Archbishop Riordan.
Could they upset one of the top dogs in the Vine Valley Athletic League? They did, as American Canyon came to Dodd Stadium and walked away with a rare loss.
Could they make the postseason again? A first-round home game waited for the Braves, and a rout of Lower Lake followed. They were a win away from their first NCS championship game berth since 2014.
On Friday, the height of the Braves’ momentum came in the second quarter, when they held a 9-7 advantage after scoring on a deep pass to Miles Williams and tackled an Eagle for a safety on the ensuing kickoff.
Trailing the fourth seed, Kennedy (11-1) suddenly found itself deep in its own red zone and was forced to punt. The Braves blasted through the offensive line and Nolan Dunkle blocked the kick.
The senior lineman then fell on the ball in the end zone to complete the touchdown. The extra point was blocked, but the Braves were in possession of a 15-7 lead.
The Eagles quickly worked to grab the momentum back just before halftime, however, and worked an offensive drive down the Braves’ 20-yard line. But the Justin-Siena defense swarmed the Eagles ball carrier in the backfield multiple times as time expired in the half.
“It was really nice to be able to get going, get moving and hit their throats early,” said senior lineman Christian Kappler. “It’s always nice when you’re, you know, not expecting to win, especially against the 1 seed. But seven months of conditioning, working out and practice – it all pays off in the end.
“We’re really glad to have been able to get here. We really wish we could have gone further. But that first half really meant a lot to us, just our ability to achieve what we could have done as a team, and I’m just glad to have been able to do it.”
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While the first two quarters were all Justin, the last two were all Kennedy.
The Braves started the third quarter with the ball first, but went three and out.
Eagles running back Trey Baker then made his presence known, breaking off a 37-yard run on the first play of the next possession. Three plays later, and after one touchdown had already been called back, the senior found the corner and scored from 17 yards out.
On the first play of the Braves’ next drive, a Hudson Beers pass was picked by Camron Young that the senior returned to the Justin-Siena 4. A crossing route followed for a touchdown pass that put Kennedy up 22-15. In less than one minute, the Eagles had jumped back into the lead with a 15-point burst.
“Second halves have been a struggle for us,” LaRocco said. “We’ve played exceptionally well in periods throughout games but we haven’t played a ton of full games, where all three phases of the ball are executing at a high level. You know, I think that’s something that we’ve struggled with this year. We have this tendency to come out like gangbusters and hit this little bit of lull.
“We’ve been able to bounce back from it before, but it was just too much tonight.”
Justin-Siena did rally when Beers found Blake Hoban over the middle of the field for a 15-yard touchdown pass in the early fourth quarter. But for the second time, a flying Eagle blocked an extra point to keep the Braves behind, 22-21.
Kennedy then answered, as it did throughout the second half, when Bobby Williams found Young on a 60-yard, back-breaking touchdown on the second play of the following drive. That put the Eagles up by two scores with four minutes remaining.
Baker added a 35-yard touchdown run in the final minute to leave no doubt of victory. The senior finished the contest with 215 yards on 23 carries.
The Braves will lose many key pieces once again from this vital senior group, but retain their starting quarterback in Beers and will have Noah Young running wild for another season. The arrow for the Justin-Siena football program continues to point up.
“We’re not known for being a big school, but our coaches really push us hard,” Kappler said. “We’re really focused a lot of the time and we work so hard. Every year, we think that no one really expects us to win. Getting those first four wins in the nonleague, it was really nice to be able to show that we can do this, we got this, we got something.
“We’re always better than people think we are. Winning against American Canyon was one of the best victories ever at the school, especially being able to win at home. I feel like we really accomplished something. I just wish we had gone further.”
Kennedy will face the winner of Saturday afternoon’s semifinal in Eureka between No. 3 seed Middletown and No. 2 seed St. Bernard’s for the Division 6 title next weekend.