Justin-Siena matched Napa High blow for blow in the first half of their Vine Valley Athletic League football clash Friday night, but the Grizzlies were too much for the Braves in the second half of a 42-14 Napa victory at Memorial Stadium.
Napa (5-2, 2-1 VVAL) scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to pull away in a contest that was close for most of the evening.
“We keep getting better every week and this was huge. They came into this football game 6-1 for a reason. They’ve got an explosive offense and they’ve played pretty doggone well on defense,” Napa head coach Richie Wessman said of the Braves (6-2, 2-2 VVAL). “They could have very easily have been 7-0 and are a doggone good football team. This was huge for our boys tonight.”
The Grizzlies grabbed revenge for last season’s 36-32 defeat at the hands of Justin-Siena at Dodd Stadium.
“That one last year really hurt bad, because we were up and the punt got blocked at the last second,” Napa’s Brock Bowers said. “I know none of the seniors or returning players forgot about it.”
After the game, Napa players sprayed each other with water from bottles as they celebrated clinching at least a .500 regular season after their program struggled in recent years.
“It’s a tremendous victory for us playing a team in town and winning. None of our seniors have not had a losing season. Well, we just guaranteed we won’t have a losing season,” Wessman said. “We have five wins and next week we’ve got to go make sure we have a winning season for these guys and just take it one step at a time. Just got to keep raising those goals.”
The Braves didn’t seem overwhelmed by the fact they were playing at Memorial Stadium for the first time. Head coach Brandon LaRocco even brought a bag of tricks as a housewarming gift.
After Justin-Siena forced Napa to punt on its opening drive, Hudson Beers completed a 35-yard pass to Blake Hoban on a fake punt to put the Braves in Napa’s red zone. The junior found Solomone Anitoni a couple of plays later on a slant route for a 15-yard touchdown pass.
But it would be the Braves’ only lead of the game.
It took Napa only one play to answer. Bowers, a four-star 2021 tight end prospect, nabbed a pass over the top of a Braves defender attempting to jump the route and took it 89 yards for the score.
University of California Berkeley tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo, a former Golden Bear and Oakland Raider, was in attendance to watch the fast-rising prospect.
“He is a special player and special players are going to do what special players do,” LaRocco said of Bowers. “We did our best to try and contain him as much as possible. I think we did a really poor job tackling. He hit those cutbacks and we were there, but we just didn’t make the tackle. So credit to him for what they did and credit to the staff over there at Napa.”
Beers was under heavy pressure most of the evening, as the signal caller was dropped five times. The Braves went for it on fourth down after a long drive, but Bowers stopped Noah Young just short of the first-down marker. Both defensive units stood tall for most of the second quarter, each consistently finding its way into the other team’s backfield.
Justin-Siena appeared to close in on the touchdown that would break the 7-7 tie, but junior cornerback Andrew Daniel intercepted a Beers pass down the right sideline and returned it from near the goal line all the way to midfield.
Bowers then broke off an apparent 42-yard touchdown run, but the play was called back because of a block in the back. However, Trey Dennis, a junior who had some powerful runs for the Grizzlies, found the end zone three plays later with a 17-yard run up the middle just before halftime.
Napa quickly forced the Braves to punt and had a couple of chances to score before the break. Senior quarterback Isaiah Newton almost found a receiver in the end zone, but Anitoni snagged the ball out of the air for the Braves as the buzzer sounded.
Justin-Siena started off the third quarter as well as it could have hoped. Beers connected with Seth Morrison on a 43-yard pass and, on the next play, found star tight end Miles Williams with a 23-yard pinpoint pass down the right sideline for the score.
Speedy running back Benito Saldivar – Napa’s leading rusher on the season thanks to a 302-yard game at Vallejo four weeks before – had only one carry in the first half, but became the go-to guy after halftime. Bringing a different kind of running style to the Grizzlies’ attack, the junior weaved in between defenders for a 29-yard pickup on his first carry of the third quarter.
After carries of 14 and 9 yards, Saldivar finished off the drive with a 10-yard run up the middle to put the Grizzlies up 21-14.
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“I feel like we were trying to do too much. We’re throwing the ball a little bit too much,” Bowers said. “But when we started to get back to the ground game, I felt like we really excelled.”
The hosts were notably fresher in the second half, as Justin-Siena was forced to play starters both ways.
“Being fresh is the huge plus of the setup we have. From spring all the way until now, you have guys playing one position and getting really good,” Wessman said. “We have guys who wouldn’t play at other schools who end up getting really good and being able to contribute for us.”
Daniel grabbed his second interception of the game, snatching a deep Beers pass to set up a nine-play scoring march featuring seven Saldivar carries. Newton faked a handoff and took the ball in from 12 yards for a 28-14 lead. Saldivar had a game-high 117 yards on 17 carries.
“You can’t turn the ball over like that on consecutive series and win football games,” LaRocco said.
Adding some risky trickery of their own on the ensuing kickoff, the Grizzlies attempted an onside kick that kicker Erik Vargas recovered himself. Vargas also was 6 for 6 on extra points.
“It was all about momentum and it was a time to go finish that game off and do so in emphatic fashion,” Wessman said.
The Braves slowed down Saldivar for a couple plays on the following drive, but Bowers had been quiet for too long. With recent offers from Notre Dame and Michigan, he took the ball around the left side of the offensive line and beat a Justin-Siena defender for a 42-yard touchdown. Bowers finished with two catches for 98 yards and five carries for 84.
“We really let things kind of crumble away in that third quarter,” LaRocco said. “A couple of turnovers and the onside kick let the momentum get away from us. Once they were having success, it kind of all crumbled around us.”
The momentum continued to go against the Braves, as a deep sack led to a Beers fumble. After multiple players from both sides attempted to grab the slippery ball, Issac Rojas secured it at Braves’ 14. It took the Grizzlies only a couple of plays to find the end zone again, as Newton took a quarterback keeper 4 yards for his second touchdown of the game.
Justin-Siena never stopped fighting, however, as senior Matthew Heun carried three times for 40 yards to put the Braves in position for a third score. However, Napa sophomore Joseph Reyes spoiled the opportunity with the Grizzlies’ third interception of the game.
Napa will travel to Petaluma next week to take on a Casa Grande squad on a short week. The Gauchos had Friday’s game against Sonoma Valley moved to Monday because of the PG&E power outages.
Justin-Siena will be back at Memorial Stadium next week, squaring off with a Vintage side looking to clinch a share of the VVAL title that night.
“These next few games will give us an opportunity to continue to grow a little better and callous ourselves for the physicality as we get ready for the playoffs,” LaRocco said.
“It was pretty cool being in this environment. It was cool playing with these big stands around us, but I think we didn’t play a very good game,” Justin-Siena’s Grant Koehler said. “I think next game we’ll come back and do well. We will have a good week of practice and come back here next week.”
Justin-Siena JV 37, Napa 0
Zachary Zurowkski ran for a pair of 2-yard touchdowns and fired an 18-yard scoring strike to Timothy Walsh Jr., Fabio Marx kicked three of his five extra points, and Robert Sangiacomo tackled a Napa ball carrier for a safety during a 23-point second quarter that gave the Braves a decisive 30-0 halftime lead.
Cooper Cohee added a 2-yard scoring run in the first quarter, and Roman Williams had a 4-yard TD run in the third.
Zurowski finished 3 of 6 passing for 33 yards and ran four times for 14. Cohee had six carries for 25 yards, Nick Andrews had a 14-yard run and an 11-yard catch, Aidan Cushing had an 8-yard run, Holden Beers a 2-yar d keeper, and Williams rushed 10 times for 12 yards.