There was adversity aplenty in the RedHawks’ season opener against Clear Lake – but Colusa overcame a spate of injuries and early miscues to gut out a 34-28 win, giving head coach Ron Calcagno his first career victory as a varsity head football coach.
Colusa entered the game banged up, with injuries to key players – including fullback and nose-guard Brendan Garcia and starting quarterback Christian Lyss – and came out even worse for the wear. During the course of the game, Colusa lost workhorse running back Shane Calcagno and starting fullback and place-kicker Brandon Guevara.
“I didn’t expect to lose all of my starting running backs,” Calcagno said. “By the end of the game, I had all my second-string in, and it wasn’t only second-string guys – I didn’t even have a fullback… for basically the last half.”
With all of the injuries, it wasn’t the varsity debut Calcagno had envisioned – but he told his players after the game that he was proud of the way they fought through the adversity and the way the team stepped up and continued to execute when those players went down.
“I don’t want to say I honestly didn’t think we were going to be able to do it, but I was really delighted that they could keep moving the ball, even though we had guys that have never played at those positions before,” Calcagno said.
The RedHawks benefited from the play of backup quarterback Conner Saso, who stepped in for Lyss and made his first varsity at quarterback. Saso made a couple of crucial of big plays down the field, finishing 5-for-8 passing for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Saso twice hit tight-end Gerry Moreno for long touchdowns; the first – which came on Saso’s first attempt – was a 22-yard strike in the first quarter. The second was a game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field in the fourth quarter. On both plays, Saso – facing pressure – stood and delivered before absorbing a big hit.
“That guy is cool under pressure,” Calcagno said. “He took some big hits when he threw the ball down the field a couple times. He’s done it for me since he was playing Pee-Wee’s – he just hangs in there. He’s probably the littlest guy out there with the biggest heart.”
After the game, Saso was quick to give credit to his teammates for his performance.
“It felt good – it was fun,” he said of his first game as a varsity signal caller. “It was a team effort. The o-line gave me time enough to make some throws. Gerry Moreno caught some passes for me and made some big plays, and Poli Pulido, too. He made a big play for us when we really needed it.”
Saso also had a strong showing on defense at the cornerback position – a position he is more accustomed to playing – but there was one play on defense Saso said he wishes he could have back.
“I feel like it went well for me at both positions tonight,” Saso said. “Except for the burn – the burn in the first quarter, it was pretty bad.”
The “burn” came on Clear Lake’s first drive of the game. On third-and-seven from their own 43-yard line, Clear Lake wide receiver Austin Davis blew by Saso, and quarterback Alex Adams hit him in stride for a 57-yard score to put Clear Lake up 6-0.
The early miscues continued on Colusa’s ensuing possession, as the RedHawks fumbled away their opening possession on their own 32-yard line. Three plays later, Adams hit running back Rodrigo Lupercio in the flat, who scampered in for an apparent 29-yard touchdown. The RedHawks dodged a bullet when the play was called back for a block in the back, but Clear Lake moved the chains on fourth-and-four from the 30-yard line to extend the drive. Colusa’s defense ultimately held firm in the red-zone, getting a stop on fourth-and-11.
The RedHawks’ offense rebounded, and Shane Calcagno capped a five-play, 82-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run, putting Colusa up 7-6 after the extra point. Their defense followed suit, forcing a three-and-out on Clear Lake’s next drive. A botched snap on the punt sailed over Austin Davis’ head, and Davis was tackled deep in his own territory, giving Colusa’s offense first-and-goal at the 3-yard line. It took Colusa just two plays to punch the ball in on a 2-yard run by Aksil Coombs.
Coombs followed up the score with a big play on defense, intercepting Adams as time was winding down in the first quarter. The turnover set up Saso’s first big play of the night at quarterback – the 22-yard scoring strike to Moreno – which came just four plays later and put Colusa up 21-6.
Clear Lake’s next possession also ended in a turnover when outside linebacker Brett Betsekas came up with a strip-sack, and Moreno scooped it up and returned it 40 yards to Clear Lake’s 25-yard line. Fernando Castillo rumbled in from the one yard out shortly thereafter to put Colusa up 28-6.
Just when Colusa was threatening to take control of the game, Lupercio returned a kickoff 85 yards for a score, and brought his team within two scores. After a Colusa three-and-out, Clear Lake scored again, this time on a 37-yard Hail Mary with just 16 seconds remaining in the half. After a successful two-point conversion, Clear Lake went into the half trailing by just 8 points.
Clear Lake was first to strike after the intermission, marching 78 yards in 10 plays before Davis scored on a reverse from 20 yards out. The Cardinals converted the two-point attempt to tie the game, but Saso effectively put the game away on the next drive with his second touchdown to Moreno. ■