FROM AUBURN JOURNAL
Placer coach Joey Montoya had to wonder when that slippery football was going to slosh into the hands of a Hillmen Friday night. Nearly every fumble and every tipped ball found its way back into the clutches of the Center Cougars for the first three quarters. It wasnât until defensive lineman Devin Toste broke through the Cougar line and got his paws on a 37-yard field goal attempt with 2:41 left in the game that Placer started to believe their 16-15 advantage would hold up as the final score.
Like a dying mud duck, the kick tumbled and splashed down to the rain-soaked turf while the Hillmen faithful erupted. But waitâ¦a penalty flag! The preliminary call was roughing the kicker on Placer, and it appeared Center would be given a first down near the Placer 15 yard line.
Then the officials huddled. Fortunately for Placer, one of the officials saw the âToste tipâ and correctly ruled that the penalty be waived off, giving Placer the ball at their own 20 yard line. Anthony Kerrigan, who rushed for 120 yards on 14 carries on the night, burst around left end for a first down and Placer was able to run out the clock in the victory formation.
âWe could not have played more poorly than we did in the first half,â said Montoya, after watching his players get their hands on four fumbles, only to see them all bounce Centerâs way. âBut we found a way to play poorly against a great team, that was 5-1 coming in, and still get a win.â
It was another kick, soon to be known as âBlakeâs big bootâ that lifted Placer to the lead earlier in the fourth quarter. Down 15-13 with 11 minutes remaining, the Hillmen had the ball, fourth and four at the Center 15 yard line. Instead of calling a play, Montoya called a time out to think it over before deciding on kicker Blake Van Dyke for the 32-yard field goal attempt in the sloppy conditions.
âI had confidence in him,â Montoya said.
The ball rocketed off Van Dykeâs foot and split the uprights for the lead, the defense stiffened when it needed to down the stretch, Toste got the tip, and the Hillmen found themselves all alone atop the Pioneer Valley League with a 2-0 mark.
Placer dug itself a hole early on. After stopping Center without a first down on their first series, the Cougars punted, with the ball skipping on the wet turf to Placerâs one yard line. The visitors from Antelope then stopped the Hillmen in the end zone on the next play for a safety and a 2-0 lead with just two minutes gone in the game.
Center had their issues with the wet conditions too, as quarterback Brandon Lesly was not so much passing the ball as heaving it like a hand grenade. He could not find his grip all night, negating the Cougarâs deep passing threat. Instead he settled mostly for short sideline completions to 6-4 wide out Zharon Houston, which clicked for several first downs, including one which kept Centerâs first scoring drive alive.
Leslyâs second completion was to Jeremiah Bradford for a 19-yard touchdown and Center extended its lead to 9-0 with 5:59 left in the first quarter. Placer committed three penalties on the drive, and had a sure interception slip away in the rain.
On their next possession, Placer put together an impressive 11-play, 64-yard ground attack with Kerrigan and fullback Mario Perez doing most of the damage. It was Morgan âMeatballâ Rein-Robinson who packed the pigskin the final six yards for the score, and Placer trailed 9-6 as Van Dykeâs kick was off the mark.
Center had to punt on its next possession but Placer muffed the catch, and the ball bounced to the Cougars. The Hillmen came up with a big sack, followed by a Collin Wright interception to stall that drive. Placer then went three-and-out, and Center fumbled the punt return but again the ball bounced to the Cougars.
During their next drive the Cougars again lost the handle on the football two more times, both times with same result. It appeared nothing was going to go Placerâs way. Hillmen defensive back Johnny Callahan stepped in front of a Lesly pass for an interception to put an end to a sloppy first half, where the Hillmen outgained the Cougars 180 to 128, but still trailed 9-6.
In the third quarter the team exchanged possessions until Placer blocked a Cougar punt and Perez pounced on it at the one yard line. It was the break Placer was looking for. Enter the Meatball, for a one-yard scoring plunge and Placer led for the first time in the game, 13-9 with 2:38 left in the 3rd quarter.
The lead didnât last long, however as two plays later, Cougar workhorse Robbie Donnell slipped through a few tacklers at the line of scrimmage and raced 69 yards for a touchdown and a 15-13 lead. The extra point attempt was no good, which turned out to be as big a play as Donnellâs dash, because three minutes later Van Dykeâs kick would give the Hillmen all the points they needed for the win.
Donnell, who was stopped for no gain or tackled for loss seven times, could not get untracked in the muddy conditions against defensive coach Eric Rodarteâs hard hitting squad, gaining only 21 yards on 16 carries aside from his big run.
Placerâs Perez pounded out 60 yards on 15 carries and picked up key first downs for the Hillmen on second effort. Hugh Hanson had a nifty 42-yard punt return which aided Placer in its field position battle in the third period, leading eventually to their first go-ahead score. Dallan Trentman had a good night on both sides of the ball for the winners.
Placer rolled up 328 yards of offense on the night, all of it on the ground behind a punishing line. The Hillmen had just three passing attempts in the wet conditions. Center finished with 256 yards.
Placer hosts Foothill next week, which lost to Bear River 27-6 Friday night and is winless in the PVL.