The Justin-Siena football team knew it could beat Archbishop Riordan if it didn’t beat itself Friday night.

It look like the Braves would do the latter after the Crusaders from San Francisco recovered three fumbles in the second quarter and turned a six-point deficit into an eight-point halftime lead.

It wasn’t easy to get the momentum back. Riordan’s athletic and physical ball carriers continued to put points on the board, and the Crusaders took a three-point lead with 3:16 to go.

But that was more than enough time for Solomone Anitoni to turn the game around.

The senior speedster returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, then sealed the win on the next play from scrimmage with a 15-yard scoop and score to give Justin-Siena a thrilling 43-31 win at Dodd Stadium.

“I love Solomone,” said junior quarterback Hudson Beers after the Braves improved to 4-0. “He makes things a lot easier for us, that’s for sure.”

So did Beers, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 249 yards and two scores. On the first play of Justin-Siena’s second series, he found Blake Hoban on a perfectly thrown bomb – in stride, helping Hoban pull away from the pursuit.

“I went in hoping and planning on having a good game and we scored right away, which definitely helped,” Beers said. “We knew this game would be a lot more physical than the other games we’ve had. We knew it would be a dogfight. We prepared like we should and came out with a win. We worked hard all week and it showed.”

Anitoni began a 3 for 4 night on PATs by converting for a 7-0 lead.

Riordan (2-1) responded with an 86-yard, 12-play scoring drive. Fazon Ruth had 63 of the yards on six carries, including a 20-yard touchdown burst through a hole so big he scored standing up. Matt Meadows tied the game with the first of his four PATs late in the first quarter.

Justin-Siena appeared it would retake the lead after marching 76 yards in eight plays, led by Noah Young’s three determined carries for 38 yards and 13-yard catch. But Riordan recovered a fumbled snap at the 3.

The Braves got the ball back with a three-and-out and, with a short field, scored soon after on a 3-yard Young scamper. Anitoni’s kick was wide, leaving it 13-7.

The touchdown came after Justin-Siena fumbled again near the goal line, but recovered it.

After another quick Crusaders punt, Riordan fell on another Justin-Siena fumble. Three plays later, Ruth ran off right tackle and scored from 31 yards out, and the PAT put the Crusaders on top, 14-13.

The Braves continued to have butter fingers, as one allowed a squib kickoff to bounce off his chest and into the hands of Mismo Crooms. After a 29-yard Ruth rumble, Aden Jackson juked his way to the end zone from 20 yards out with 27 seconds left for a 21-13 halftime lead.

“We worked on it at halftime and it we were OK,” Beers said of the fumbling. “We didn’t let it bother us too much.”

Justin-Siena head coach Brandon LaRocco was happy to be down by only eight points at the break.

“We felt like we played very well in the first half outside of a handful of mental mistakes. We felt like we controlled the half. We just gave them too many opportunities,” he said. “So we told the boys, ‘Look, you have this. You’re a better team than they are. You’ve just got to hold on to the ball. That’s been a challenge for us this year, so I’m really proud of them for the way they bounced back and fought. That’s a characteristic of a good team.”

The Braves opened the second half by forced a quick punt and tying the score. Beers completed four throws for 79 yards during the march, including a 15-yard touchdown to Hoban, and found Joshua Tichy with the conversion pass to make it 21-21 midway through the third quarter.

But Ruth, Jackson and 295-pound running back Kemoeatu Kefu ran against the Justin-Siena defense at will during a six-play scoring drive, capped by Ruth’s 6-yard touchdown run.

“We knew we were in for a battle, but we also knew this was good preparation for us getting ready for league,” said LaRocco, whose team hosts Casa Grande (1-3) in its Vine Valley Athletic League opener next Friday. “To face a powerful, big running team like this – this is what the VVAL is for the most part.”

The Braves tied it again, 28-all, on a 26-yard scoring run by sophomore Caden Parlett on the first play of the fourth quarter.

Riordan gobbled up most of the fourth quarter with an 18-play series, but had to settle for a 25-yard field goal and 31-28 lead with 3:16 left.

The lead was gone 16 seconds later, after a 90-yard kickoff return by Anitoni – his second one in two weeks – and his PAT put the Braves up 35-31.

“I was supposed to run to the right side of the field, but I did that the last time and I knew their whole team would go there,” Anitoni explained. “So I took three steps (left) and cut right up the middle. If I didn’t score, I knew my coach would be mad at me.”

With 3:00 to answer, the Crusaders finally lost the ball themselves. On the first play, Young jarred the ball loose and Anitoni scooped it up and scored from 15 yards out.

“We couldn’t have done it without Noah,” Anitoni said. “He came up, felt that motion, took on the block, took on the runner, and just swatted the ball down. I saw it come out and I had to finish for him.”

The senior, still a little rubber-legged from his 90-yard dash, barely stayed on his feet after getting the loose ball.

“That’s what we condition for,” Anitoni said. “We know we’re a small team, low on numbers and small in size, so our coaches condition us like crazy every day. We were talking about that at halftime. They were saying ‘This is why we do all those gassers, for this moment.’ This is what we work for, for hard times like that, when we’re tired. We know how to keep pushing.”

The wild finish didn’t surprise LaRocco much.

“Solomone has been making plays for us for three years, so it’s really nothing new,” he said of the third-year varsity starter. “He has a knack for making big plays in big moments. He’s a hard worker, he’s incredibly talented, and he competes. He doesn’t get afraid. He’s a playmaker, no doubt about it.”

Anitoni didn’t get the final point, however. On the PAT, holder Miles Williams took off with the ball and scored around the left side.

Hoban ended Riordan’s final possession with an interception.

“We all knew it was going to be a challenge tonight,” Anitoni said. “What we did as a team to mentally prepare was a lot of film watching – a lot of film watching. We knew they were bigger than us, but our scout offense gave us a good look, each and every play, and it helped us prepare for that and it helped us do well.”

Archbishop Riordan JV 28, Justin-Siena 14

The Braves tied the game twice on Joseph Maciel extra points, after a 30-yard touchdown pass from Zachary Zurowski to Eric Gutierrez in the second quarter and a 14-run TD run by Cole Chatagnier in the third.

But Riordan answered with a pick-six and scoring run in the fourth to hand Justin-Siena (3-1) its first loss. The Crusaders also got on the board with a scoring run in the first quarter and a kickoff return in the second.

Zurowski finished 10 of 19 passing for 119 yards and three interceptions. He completed passes to Aidan Cushing (three for 52 yards, including a 30-yarder), Gutierrez (two for 30), Cooper Cohee (two for 16), Chatagnier (one for 11) and Tim Walsh (two for 10). Leading the rushers were Chatagnier (two carries for 16 yards), Zurowski (five for 15) and Nick Andrews (one for 15).

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