While there are numerous football clichés pertaining to establishing the run and the importance of defense to winning championships, the Pierce Bears are finding success in those mantras, and as a result are back in the Northern Section CIF Division IV title game, after downing No. 8 East Nicolaus 13-8 last Friday night at Gregg LeMaster Field.
A rematch of the 2019 championship game, last week’s contest was an opportunity for No. 2 Pierce to avenge the loss they suffered to the Spartans two seasons ago, and one they did not let slip away.
It was a lightning fast first half as both teams opted for the ball control game, highlighted by a combined two passes that were thrown before intermission.
Although neither team scored in the first half, the Bears set the tone defensively, consistently rising to the occasion and holding the Spartans in check.
Kaden Davis, a stalwart at nose guard, was critical to the Bears’ success and provided some of the biggest plays of the night, including a sack to stop one drive in the first period, and another in the second quarter.
Further adding to the defensive effort was Rudy Tapia, who intercepted a pass in the second period, as was Brandon Saavedra, who, on a separate series, had a sack for an eight-yard loss to put the Spartans in a deep hole right before halftime.
As the third period opened, Pierce was finally able to crack the East Nic defense when, after holding the Spartans to a three-and-out, it proceeded to march 66 yards down the field, and put the first points of the game on the board, with 7:40 remaining in the quarter.
To do so, the Bears hammered away with the run, and saw fullback Manuel Lopez cap the drive when he took it up the middle from four yards out for the touchdown, which was then followed by a Ryan Travis extra point.
Now with the lead, Pierce continued to play inspired defense, this time against the pass, beginning with Armando Ramirez breaking up an attempt on a fourth downplay, as East Nic tried to answer.
Then on the Spartan’s first series of the fourth quarter, Tristan Flores registered a sack and Davis batted down a pass to extinguish yet another threat.
On the ensuing possession, the Bears responded with what was to be the game winning drive, one that was kept alive on a third and long by a 47-yard pass from quarterback Bryce Murphy to Saavedra that put the ball at the nine-yard line.
From there, it was three straight hand-offs to Lopez, who finished the drive with a one-yard run to make the score 13-0 with just over five minutes remaining in the game.
Lopez, a punishing runner, recorded his ninth 100-yard game of the season, gaining 142 yards on 34 carries, and scoring twice on the night.
Yet, as expected, the Spartans were not going down without a fight, and used the next four minutes to bring themselves within six points of a win, as they moved down the field via the pass for a touchdown, and then added the two-point conversion.
Thus, what once seemed like a game Pierce had in the bag now boiled down to the ensuing onside kick attempt, which ultimately was recovered by Rudy Tapia at the Bear 40.
Needing a first down to run out the clock, the Bears put the ball in Davis’s hands and, aided by some extra push from the line, the big fullback was able to move the chains and preserve the victory.
While the Pierce offense was hampered by penalties and two turnovers, particularly in the first half, the defense was stellar all game long, motivated not only by a desire to win, but additionally by pride, as coach Anthony Tapia explained after the game.
“Our guys played with a little chip on their shoulder tonight because the league defensive MVP went to the East Nic linebacker,” Tapia said. “Our whole defense showed up, but Kaden and Brandon were really good.”
Indeed, they were, as Davis collected a team-high nine tackles, with Saavedra accounting for four and rendering the Spartans unable to run on his side of the field.
With the win, the Bears (9-3) traveled to Redding on Wednesday, Nov. 24 to face the unbeaten, No.1 seed U-Prep Panthers (12-0) who advanced to the championship game by defeating Durham 15-8.
It marks the second time in three years (there was no championship game in 2020) that Pierce has the chance to compete for the section title, and Tapia is more than pleased for his squad, whom he has praised as being one of the hardest working groups he has ever coached.
“I’m very proud of our guys,” Tapia said. “They are a true team, and they worked for it. Forty to 50 guys in the weight room all summer, and it has paid off.”
Should the Bears prevail against U-Prep, it would be their first football section title since 2004.
Results from the contest were not available at the time of press. ■