While it was uncustomary for there not to be a standing-room-only crowd at the Rice Bowl, there was somehow a sense of normality when the Williams Yellowjackets and Pierce Bears took the field under the lights at McCarl Field last Friday night, in the 90th meeting between the long-standing rivals.
And although the game was not flawlessly executed by either side, and ended in a 36-0 shutout in favor of the Bears, for the first time in 16 months, high school football was being played, and that in itself was a victory for both sides.
Yet, as the whistle blew and the Bears kicked off to start the game, all seemed right with the world as student-athletes were finally able to engage in an activity that is almost a right of passage in the high school experience.
Unfortunately for the Yellowjackets, however, that feeling would be somewhat diminished as the reigning NSCIF Division IV runner-up Bears wore them down and claimed bragging rights for the fourth straight year.
Pierce got off to a strong start when after holding Williams to a three and out on the initial possession, it unveiled both the ground game and an aerial attack, then capitalized after a ‘Jacket penalty in the red zone, where, from the eight-yard line, senior Eduardo Ambriz put the first points of the year on the board, giving the Bears an early 6-0 lead.
With Williams unable to move the ball against the Bear defense, Pierce would strike again on its third possession in the waning seconds of the first quarter, when quarterback Eduardo Paiz connected with wide receiver Justin Mathews for 30 yards and the score.
Sophomore Manny Lopez tacked on the two-point conversion to give the Bears a 14-0 advantage, which it would retain until late in the third period, when they broke the game open, scoring twice in under a minute.
Ambriz ran it in from a yard out with 1:34 left in the third, and Lopez made good on the conversion making it 22-0, but then on the ensuing kickoff, the ‘Jackets fumbled and senior Tristan Miller recovered to put the Bears back in business at the Williams 25 yard line.
After a face mask penalty advanced the ball to the 12, Ambriz made his way into the end zone for his third score and capped a night in which he gained 87 yards on 10 carries.
When Ryan Travis hauled in the two-point conversion, the Bears stretched their lead to 30-0, but weren’t quite finished as they added one more touchdown to their total in the fourth quarter when Lopez ripped off a 45 yard run for the game’s final points.
Lopez, who just days ago was practicing with the JV squad turned in an outstanding performance carrying 15 times for 139 yards.
Credit for the win also goes to the Bear defense, which disrupted the ‘Jacket offense all night, holding it to under 100 yards of total offense and forcing three turnovers.
Bryce Murphy had an interception, Mauricio Ordaz recovered a fumble, and Brandon Saavedra recorded a sack, while Ambriz and Luke Voorhees led the team in tackles with four apiece.
After the game, Pierce coach Anthony Tapia, who with the win is 3-0 in Rice Bowl games, spoke about how the experience was without question an unusual one.
“It’s a whole new game with all the COVID rules, and there was a point when even I was feeling pessimistic about being able to play, so it’s great to be out here,” Tapia said. “Obviously I’m happy about the win and even more thrilled for the players who worked hard in the offseason and have kept working hard even when it seemed we wouldn’t have a chance to play. Brandon Saavedra is one of those guys and he had a big sack early on. Justin Mathews made a couple great catches tonight in the first half, and Manny Lopez wasn’t even practicing with us, but came up big tonight. After being isolated for so long and all the starts and stops to get here, I don’t really know how I’m feeling right now. It was surreal.”
It was a tough night for the Yellowjackets on the home side of the field, as they had a significant number of players making their varsity debuts and did not always look completely comfortable in what they were doing.
As a result, they were unable to extend drives despite having opportunities as head coach Jeff Lemus explained, “Our youth was evident throughout the night. We made too many mental mistakes, which we expect with having a lot of juniors starting this year.”
Still, despite the outcome, there were some bright spots on which the team can build upon as they continue to move forward, with one being junior quarterback Sam Lopez, who is coming off an injury suffered last season and, while making his first varsity start, showed off his mobility, as well as a strong arm, despite being under constant duress.
Another junior turning in a big play was Miguel Rivera, who intercepted a pass at the seven-yard line, which halted a Bear drive early in the third period.
So, with one game now in the books, the two teams return to the drawing board to make adjustments and ready themselves for their next opportunity.
Pierce (1-0) is hoping to host East Nicolaus in a rematch of last season’s title game on Saturday afternoon at 1 PM, while Williams (0-1) has another emotional rivalry game this week when it makes the short drive north to Maxwell on Friday night.