CLOVIS – The Sanger High Apaches were just three yards away from a stirring comeback victory in their Central Section Division I quarter final battle against Clovis East on Nov. 9.
Facing fourth down with just 30 seconds left to play, the Apaches opted against a potential tying field goal and went for victory. But the Timberwolves defense swarmed to stop the play and preserve a 17-14 victory before a loud and raucous crowd at Lamonica Stadium.
Number four seed Clovis East (9-2) advances to the semifinals on Friday, Nov. 17 to take on top-seeded Clovis North (11-0). Fifth-seed Sanger had its successful 10-2 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion, with both losses coming to the Timberwolves and sandwiched around a County Metro Athletic Conference championship season.
“We’ve got a good group of kids and our seniors, I really feel bad for them,” head coach Matt Logue said, “It’s just tough, a game like this, it was such a great game. In a game like this it’s not any one given play. It wasn’t the fourth down play, or one of the touchdowns in the first half. Just so many things can happen.”
In the end, the Apaches’ final offensive play proved to be decisive. Star running back Izzy Robles, whose two their-quarter touchdown runs were part of a rally from a 17-0 deficit, took a toss pitch left and was swarmed under by a wave of Clovis East tacklers just inside the 5-yard line with 26 seconds remaining.
Despite being backed inside the 2 after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the Timberwolves were able to run out the clock.
Clovis East coach Brandon Nagle credited his tiring defense for executing the play and big stop.
“I was proud of the guys, we thought they were gonna run a toss, we guessed and we guessed right,” he said.
Sanger made a spirited comeback from 17 points down, despite having to go without one of its top offensive weapons in Bryson Baker. The junior two-way standout, who’s rushed for more than 800 yards this season, was dressed but couldn’t play because of a deep bone bruise in his ankle.
It also enabled the hosts to stack the box defensively against Robles, keeping the big back with more than 1,400 yards rushing entering the game bottled up for much of the first half. The Timberwolves built a lead on a 32-yard field goal by Francisco Damas in the first quarter, then a 59-yard pass and run from Tyus Miller to Tommy Nix and a 25-yard scoring run from Donyell Booker in the second period.
Sanger needed to respond in the final 24 minutes, and used a big play to quickly strike back. On the second half kickoff, sophomore Carlos Young fielded a bouncing ball on the far sideline, ran right and cut back through a hole in the middle and sprinted 50-plus yards before being brought down inside the Clovis East 5. On the first play, Robles scored standing on a run through right guard just 18 seconds into the period.
Boosted by the sudden shift in momentum, the Apaches defense forced a three-and-out with sophomore defensive back Kayden McGrew (filling in for Baker) making a big hit and helping on a pass breakup. Sanger started at its own 30 following a punt, and quickly drove 70 yards.
Marshall Pittman had a run for a first down, but Robles had the bulk of the work with two big gains including a 32-yard jaunt to the CE 4. The senior then surged in through right tackle for the score, and Santana Mercado’s extra point kick made it 17-14 less than five minutes into the quarter.
The Apaches’ defense made another stop, but a holding penalty short-circuited their next possession and they punted the ball back. Another hold, this time on the Timberwolves, eventually pinned them back deep and Sanger took possession following a punt at the Clovis East 43 as the third quarter ended.
Fueled by the cheers of a large turnout of Sanger fans, the Apaches marched deep into CE territory behind runs from Conner Bohlken and Robles. But from the 13, the Apaches fumbled and the Timberwolves’ Booker recovered at the 10 with a little more than nine minutes remaining.
Undaunted, Sanger’s defense overcame an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a first-down run to eventually stop the Timberwolves and take possession at its own 39 with 7:41 remaining, It would be the Apaches’ final offensive possession of the season, and included dramatic swings of emotion.
Bohlken made a big first down run and PIttman added yardage on a pair of carries as Robles briefly went out after banging up his left arm. Sanger also had a key injury on the possession as starting right guard Adrian Sosa was helped off the field with a leg injury.
But the drive seemed to be headed to a dramatic and happy finish for Apaches nation when Robles powered to the 25 for a first down on fourth and 1 from the 39 with three minutes remaining. Robles then cleared left end on a toss sweep for 12 yards to the 5. Runs by Bohlken and Robles moved it to the three, and Pittman was stopped on third down to set up the decisive play.
Sanger had a solid defensive performance overall, despite two big pass plays resulting in the Timberwolves touchdowns. The Apaches managed to bottle up star junior receiver-DB Harold Duvall, who scored three touchdowns in a 42-21 CE victory in the teams’ first meeting on Aug. 31.
Nagle, while noting his offense struggled with its timing that he felt was brought on by a first-round bye, credited Sanger for its typical championship-style effort.
“I’ve been coaching 23 years, and I think I’ve seen them every year,” he said, “They’re just tough, well-coached and have a great culture with great kids and a great program. To beat them means a lot to us, and so we’re proud of these guys and showing how far we’ve come.”
For Logue and the Apaches, it was a tough pill to swallow in coming up just short in the rematch with Clovis East.
“Our kids were resilient, they played really well, It is what it is,” he said. “To be in with a chance to win this game is impressive. But we don’t really settle for being close, so it really hurts.”
The Apaches will graduate many key players including Robles, quarterback-DB Jaden Chanthalangsy, Marquis Cropper, Bohlken, Pittman, Tomas Barajas and linemen Sosa and Nathan Velasquez. But Logue said a good group of returning players (including Baker, Young and McGrew) will provide a good foundation for 2024.