Prior to kickoff on Friday night, first-year Pierce head coach Anthony Tapia said that he was nervous – even more nervous than he remembered getting in his own playing days for the Bears.
For the early part of Friday night’s game against University Prep, his team – particularly the Bears’ offense – didn’t do much to calm Tapia’s nerves.
While Pierce’s offense showed flashes in the first quarter – specifically on their second drive of the game, when Max Myers took a pitch to the left, followed a pair of lead blockers and scampered, untouched, for a 62-yard touchdown – turnovers were a recurring theme.
Four of the Bears first five possessions ended in turnovers – three of which gave University Prep the ball deep in Pierce territory, with two drives starting at Pierce’s 11-yard line, and another at Pierce’s 23-yard line. With the Bears’ defense playing at a disadvantage, the Panthers scored two touchdowns off of three turnovers in the first quarter alone, to jump out to a 13-7 lead.
Pierce’s offense got another spark from Myers – on the same pitch play to the left side – early in the second quarter. This time, Myers went 50 yards before being taken down at the University Prep 8-yard line. Pierce looked poised to tie the game on the next play, when Matthew Tapia – in at fullback – took an inside hand-off and rumbled all the way to the goal-line. Before he could cross the plane, however, a University Prep defender jarred the ball loose, and the Panthers recovered the ball about a half-yard outside the end-zone.
That half-yard proved to be crucial. With the Panthers’ backs against their own end-zone, Pierce’s defense held firm on first and second down. On third-and-10, nose-guard Matt Williams sacked University Prep quarterback Dylan Cabral for a safety, giving the Bears the momentum swing they sorely needed. From there, the Bears scored 14 unanswered points – with rushing touchdowns from Diego Ramirez and Tommy Davis – to close out the half, and take a 23-13 lead into the half.
The two squads exchanged touchdowns after the intermission, with University Prep striking first. Pierce turned the ball over again on their first offensive play of the second half, and Cabral scored on a quarterback keeper from 20 yards out four plays later, bringing the Panthers within four points, 23-19.
There score remained locked there until early in the fourth quarter, when Ramon Paiz hooked up with Victor Martinez for a 30-yard score through the air to extend Pierce’s lead to 10 points. Cabral answered right back with a 50-yard touchdown toss to Trayton Laustalot, and University Prep converted on the extra point to bring themselves within a field goal.
After the Panthers held the Bears to a three-and-out on their ensuing possession, Cabral did his best to give his team their first lead since the second quarter. Starting with the ball at their own 16-yard line, Cabral opened the drive with a 19-yard quarterback keeper, connected with Laustalot for seven yards, and then hit junior receiver Riley Seay for a big gain through the air. Fortunately for Pierce, the play was offset by a holding penalty – one of three on the drive for the Panthers – but they continued to march down field toward Pierce territory. When Cabral dropped back to pass on first-and-15 from Pierce’s 47-yard line, the Bears defense came up with another crucial, momentum-changing play: with 4:49 left in the game, Ramon Paiz picked Cabral off at the line of scrimmage and returned the ball to the Panthers’ 45 yard-line. Paiz then took over on offense and helped secure the win, rushing four times for 41 yards – including a 19-yard touchdown – on Pierce’s last drive, putting the Bears up 36-26. The Panthers got the ball back with under 30 seconds remaining in the game, but cornerback Diego Ramirez picked off Cabral and Paiz took a knee to run out the clock.
While his first win at the helm of the program was more nerve-wracking than he might have liked, head coach Anthony Tapia said that he was happy with the way his team responded to adversity.
“I was more impressed that we were able to get ourselves out of the situations we put ourselves in, and were able to get out of. It’s not just about the win,” Tapia said. “It’s early. There’s many things that we want to accomplish, and we saw some of those tonight. Obviously, we’re happy to get the win. We had a lot of rust… It was definitely a great game to be a part of, and I’m happy for them that they got the win – they put themselves in a pretty big hole and were able to get out of it.