American Canyon at Petaluma football

American Canyon's Derrick Conner (62) wraps up a Petaluma ball carrier Friday night.

PETALUMA — The American Canyon High football program has been known for its high-flying offenses over the years. If Friday night’s Vine Valley Athletic League opener at Petaluma was any indication, the Wolves’ defense could be the star of the 2019 team.

Middle linebacker Kekoa Wilson rounded up a number of key defensive players for American Canyon before the game and told them that they needed to set the tone. The defensive unit responded, helping the Wolves overcome a slow start and cruise to a 34-0 rout at Ellison Field.

“An ugly win is still a win,” head coach John Montante said after American Canyon improved to 5-0 overall. “We’re looking at execution and not results. Our defense is playing well and the offense has to match that. The offense does do that in spurts. But as we look down the road we’ve got some tough competition to deal with, so we’ve got to do better.

“We’ve got to clear up our assignments; we have to do a better job across the board. We have to have better practices. Our defense is doing a good job, but our offense has to step up.”

The Trojans (1-4 overall) had resembled Swiss cheese on defense coming into the game, allowing an average of just over 42 points per game, but the hosts didn’t allow the Wolves to find any early offensive momentum. American Canyon slowly chipped away during its first drive before Alex Llamas was forced to attempt a 34-yard field goal that fell just short.

But Petaluma’s offense struggled even more against the Wolves’ larger and quicker defensive line, managing only 1 net yard of total offense in the first half.

“When our offense can’t perform week to week like it should, we know as a defense if we ever let up we’re going to lose the game,” Wilson said.

Vance Eschenburg and his wide receivers weren’t on the same page for most of the first half, as the dangerous quarterback had many passes fall harmlessly to the ground. The senior was 8-for-17 for 100 passing yards in three quarters of work.

But American Canyon defensive end Derrick Conner was a menace all evening, as the 6-foot, 265-pound senior was a fixture in the Trojans’ backfield. Conner had three sacks and forced Petaluma to start running the ball in the opposite direction for most of the game.

The Wolves offense finally broke through in the middle of the second quarter, when James Larson bounced to the outside and burst his way for a 27-yard touchdown run down the left sideline for a 6-0 lead. The point after attempt was missed.

American Canyon took a risk on the following drive and it paid off. With less than four minutes left in the half, and knowing Petaluma was to receive the ball to start the second half, the Wolves quickly stopped the Petaluma running back on first down and used their first timeout. On each of the following two plays, they pushed the Trojans’ offense back and regained possession of the ball with only 25 seconds coming off the clock.

Eschenburg then connected with Kaave Gaviola over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 1:24 left, and Justin Del Rosario blasted the extra point through the uprights for a 13-0 halftime lead.

Conner opened the second half with a tone-setting sack, the Trojans quickly punted, and it was Ezekiel Anderson turn to shine. The junior tailback, who had only 20 yards rushing in the first half, took off 58 yards for a touchdown on American Canyon’s third play of the drive.

Anderson followed that up with an 18-yard sweep around the right side for his second score, finishing with a game-high 129 yards on only 11 carries.

The Wolves grabbed their first turnover of the contest to end the third quarter, as Jeffery Brown smashed into Trojans quarterback Jack Hartman and a pile of Wolves jumped on the ball. In a strange turn of events, the ball found its way to Conner outside of the pile and the lineman was able to return it 10 yards.

With American Canyon ahead 27-0, junior quarterback Vinnie Espejo took over in the fourth quarter and found paydirt. Darting back and forth, he was able to elude tacklers on a 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Del Rosario added his fourth extra point to close the scoring.

American Canyon outgained Petaluma 416-54 in total yards.

“It’s a great feeling to start off the Vine Valley with a victory, but we gotta stay humble,” Wilson said. “We have to perform to our level, and we haven’t been. That is the key to success. It is just playing how we should be playing. We have a lot of potential and we have the weapons. We just don’t execute and we play down to other teams’ levels. That is what we can’t do. If we play up to our level, we could be unstoppable.”

The Wolves will welcome Sonoma Valley next Friday night. The Dragons lost to visiting Napa High in their VVAL opener Friday night, 62-19.

American Canyon 34, Petaluma 7

Kapono Liu rushed 21 times for 178 yards and two touchdowns, ran in a two-point conversion, and returned a kickoff 55 yards for another score as the Wolves won their VVAL opener and improved to 5-0 overall.

“Kapono is getting it done on special teams,” said American Canyon head coach Lawrence Handy, who also complimented the play of nose tackle Dalano Murray, defensive end Ren Ducut and defensive tackle David Garcia. “They played shutdown defense on the line.”

Croix Stewart had three catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, returned three kicks for 101 yards, and kicked two extra points. George Konoval scooped up a Petaluma fumble and scored.

Roman Webb added six rushes for 22 yards and Sean Yumang two rushes for 9 yards. Mario Juarez and Trenton Angold one catch for 12 yards.

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