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American Canyon senior quarterback Vance Eschenburg looked like he ran into a brick wall when he was tackled by Napa High senior Jesus Pimentel at the end of an 11-yard run late in the first half Friday night.

The second-year starter got up right away, but soon fell back to the ground. After lying on the Memorial Stadium field for several minutes with coaches hovering over him, he slowly walked off under his own power, his work done for the night.

Meanwhile, back-up Vinnie Espejo tried to remember all the things Eschenburg and coaches had gone over with him. Having completed just 2 of 2 passes for 28 yards and run the ball eight times for 58 yards and a touchdown all season, the varsity rookie was tasked with trying to break a scoreless tie on Napa’s homecoming night.

Espejo did that and more, engineering scoring drives in the third and fourth quarters while the defense gave up one big play in a 14-7 Vine Valley Athletic League victory that kept American Canyon’s undefeated season intact.

“We got him into games for these kind of reasons, because you’ve got to be prepared,” American Canyon head coach John Montante said.

Espejo said he’s always mentally ready to take over for Eschenburg.

“Every game, no matter what, if he needs me I’ll be there,” he said. “We fix each other’s mistakes and talk to each other, make sure we have that good bond. When he’s on the field he tells me what he sees and then when I’m off the field I tell him what I see.”

Taking the reins at the Grizzlies’ 36-yard line, Espejo kept for a 2-yard gain, recovered a fumbled snap for a 5-yard loss and pitched to James Larson for a 3-yard gain before – as a sign of things to come – completing a 19-yard pass on fourth down to Ezekiel Anderson as the half ended.

Fellow junior Alijah King’s recovery of a Napa fumble at the Grizzlies’ 31 on the fourth play of the second half gave Espejo a do-over. He capitalized on first down with a 30-yard pass that Justin Del Rosario pulled down at the 1. Kaave Gaviola then scored standing up with a run off right tackle, and Del Rosario’s extra point put the Wolves up 7-0.

Just 26 seconds had run off the clock, however, before a spectacular 73-yard touchdown keeper by Napa senior quarterback Isaiah Newton and an Erik Vargas extra point tied the game. Newton followed his blockers and made some nice cuts before darting just inside the goal-line marker.

Grizzlies senior Justin Barnes kept the Grizzlies rolling by tackling Gaviola for a loss on third down, then returning a blocked punt to the American Canyon 28.

Senior defensive lineman Derrick Connor got the ball back for the Wolves, knocking the ball loose while sacking Newton and returning the fumble to midfield.

Espejo took a hard hit midway through the ensuing drive and ended up having a fourth-down pass broken up by Napa senior Armando Deharo. Napa managed only one first down on the drive that followed, but a 48-yard punt by Vargas pinned the Wolves at their own 8 with 9:23 left.

But the Wolves (7-0, 3-0 VVAL) – aided by four 15-yard penalties – two for horse-collar tackles, one for roughing the passer and one for pass interference – covered the 92 yards in just seven plays. Gaviola punched it in from the 1 and Del Rosario nailed the extra point for a 14-7 lead with 6:25 to play.

With plenty of time to go for the win or a tie, the Grizzlies (4-2, 2-1 VVAL) started at their own 35 got as far as the American Canyon 19, thanks in part to a defensive pass interference call. But sacks by senior linebacker Quincy Patrick on first and third down led to Newton throwing incomplete on fourth down, and Espejo taking a knee twice to run the last minute off the clock.

“Quincy Patrick is a good player,” Montante said. “He’s a transfer (from St. Patrick-St. Vincent) and he just got cleared a couple of weeks ago and fit right in.”

The Wolves kept Napa’s Brock Bowers in check most of the night. The highly recruited junior had four carries for a net 3 yards and caught four passes for 33 yards. He did show his skills by making a one-handed grab for a 16-yard gain during the Grizzlies’ longest drive of the night late in the first half. But after 14 plays, they were forced to try a 45-yard Vargas field goal that was tipped and fellow 10 yards short.

Del Rosario also missed a field goal, a 35-yarder that was wide right late in the first quarter.

After giving probably his loudest congratulatory postgame speech of the season so far, Montante was asked what he thought of the game in general.

“Nobody can take this ‘W’ away from that group,” he said of his team. “That’s a good Napa team. Coach (Richie) Wessman’s doing a great job. But these guys have worked hard all year. They’ve earned where they’re at, and the tests will keep getting harder, and they will continue to grow and match the challenge.

“Napa worked hard, we worked hard. These are two evenly matched teams. We just played a little bit better than they did tonight.”

Montante said he didn’t know yet if Eschenburg – who was throwing to a teammate on the sideline without his helmet on during the second half – would be ready for next week’s home game against defending VVAL champion Vintage (6-1, 2-0 VVAL), which won 40-7 at Petaluma on Friday night.

Said Espejo, “Hopefully he’s ready to go and maybe we’ll rotate in and out.”

Napa defensive coordinator Askari Adams was pleased with his unit overall.

“They played hard. Of course, they made a few mistakes, but overall I thought they played really, really well,” he said. “The excitement, enthusiasm they were playing with was great.

“We’ll learn from this. We’ll move on. We’ll get even better. We’ve just got to cut out the mistakes. You can’t give any team 65 yards in penalties on one drive. We’ll definitely work on it and next week we’ll come out and be a hell of a lot better. We’ve come a long way and we’re getting better every week. We haven’t hit our stride yet, and we’re playing pretty dang good defense.”

Newton was sacked five times, three by Conner. But Napa offensive lineman Filiberto Chavez said his unit did fairly well against American Canyon’s talented defense, which gave up only its sixth touchdown of the season.

“I thought we came into it pretty prepared, facing sort of a new defense – the way they flip their Will (weak-side inside linebacker) on the strong side and how they blitz their back-side ‘backers. I thought we picked it up pretty well,” the senior said. “We could have done better. We’ve got to keep getting better and bring intensity and move our feet, just fix little stuff that holds us back.”

There was no holding back American Canyon.

“We knew they were going to bring it,” Chavez said. “We prepared to the best of our ability. We had two weeks to prepare for it. We thought we came in here pretty positive. It was a must-win for us to show that, yeah, we were 0-10 last year but we mean business now.”

Justin-Siena (6-1, 2-1 VVAL) will play at Memorial Stadium for the first time next Friday, facing the Grizzlies in a battle of third-place teams.

American Canyon JV 40, Napa 0

A Nathan Alvarez fumble recovery was a highlight for the Wolves (7-0, 3-0 VVAL) in their rout Friday night.

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.