In a battle of undefeated teams in Trowbridge on Friday, perennial Northern Section power East Nicolaus proved too much for Pierce to handle.
The Spartans defense was dominant in their 38-6 victory, stymieing what had been a potent Bears rushing attack and preserving a shutout until the final seconds of the game.
Until Friday, Pierce’s offensive line had been able to bully teams up front, and head coach Anthony Tapia said that the Bears (3-1) didn’t deviate much from that smash-mouth approach for a reason.
“Seeing that this is just Week 4 and they’re a potential playoff team, we wanted to see where we were physically,” Tapia said. “We know East Nic is the bar, and they’ve raised that bar to another level. We just wanted to see where we were physically, and talent wise – we wanted to see if we could hang with them. To that point, we had been able to, but it became evident pretty quickly we weren’t going to be able to do that against them.”
Pierce’s offense went three-and-out on their first four possessions of the game, gaining just six total yards on those drives. After the Spartans (4-0) turned the ball over on downs at Pierce’s 9-yard line on their opening drive of the game, they scored a touchdown on each of their next four possessions, jumping out to a 24-0 lead at the half. The defense played a big role in that early success: in the Spartans first three scoring drives, their offense started with the ball at Pierce’s 30-yard line, on average.
Pierce’s first possession ended with a punt from their own 9-yard line. East Nicolaus’ Aaron Alestra fielded the punt at the Bears’ 45-yard line and returned 21 yards, setting up a 24-yard touchdown run by J.T. Stinson to open the scoring. Pierce’s second possession concluded with a punt from their own 30-yard line, which was partially blocked, fielded by Jose Codrova, and returned to the Bears’ 24-yard line.
Stinson’s 9-yard run on first down and set up a 15-yard touchdown run by Mitch Barker to put the Spartans up 12-0. After another Pierce punt, East Nicolaus started with the ball at Pierce’s 41-yard line before Isidro Del Toro ripped off a 28-yard gain, Alestra rumbled for four yards, and Barker scored his second rushing touchdown of the game from nine-yards out, putting the Spartans up 18-0.
“I was pretty confident with our defense heading in. But we missed a bunch of tackles. We were in decent position, but it was just taking that next step,” Tapia said. “We just haven’t been in a fight like that… Their line is arguably the best in our division. I think they are the best. Our guys were getting blocked, and they’re not used to getting blocked like that. If they could block someone on defense, they did. We were taking on those blocks, but we just couldn’t make some of those tackles.”
Tapia added that his team needed to continue to improve upon its conditioning.
“I felt pretty good about where we were with our conditioning coming in. It’s something we’ve been really working hard recently. We were a little bit behind to open the season with all of the smoke,” Tapia said. “That first scoring drive (of East Nicolaus’), that was the first time I’ve seen my defense with hands on hips.” He added that the Bears’ quick possessions on offense further strained Pierce’s conditioning.
Pierce’s offense finally got a first down mid-way through the second quarter, when Gabe Villa converted on a fourth-and-short. They got a second one two plays later when East Nicolaus was flagged for a face-mask, and another on fourth-and-11 from East Nicolaus’ 44-yard line, when Tommy Davis faked a punt and ran it 12 yards for the first down. The Bears most promising drive of the first half stalled at East Nicolaus’ 35-yard line, and they were forced to punt. The Spartans took over possession at their own 27 with under two minutes left in the half, and drove down the field to score. McAuliff connected with Caleb Born and with Stinson for gains of 55 and 18 yards, respectively, on the drive, before he ran it in from the 3-yard line with 38 seconds left on the clock, extending the lead to 24.
After a scoreless third quarter, Barker scored his third touchdown of the night just 40 seconds into the fourth – this one from seven yards out – to put East Nicolaus up 31-0. Devarious Robinson added a 3-yard rushing touchdown to bring it to 38-0 with 4:40 remaining in the game.
Pierce narrowly avoided a shutout, as Davis plowed across the line for a 2-yard score with time expiring – set up by a 49-yard scamper by Ahmir Watson four plays earlier. Davis led the way for the Bears with 47 yards and a score on 11 carries. Barker (nine carries, 67 yards and three touchdowns), Stinson (nine carries, 70 yards and a touchdown) headed up the Spartans rushing attack. McAuliff added 41 yards and a touchdown on the ground and completed 5-of-8 passes for 114 yards.
“It was a good experience, and it was eye opening for us. Glad we got out of there healthy. It was a pretty physical game. Even our conditioning, we’ve been pushing them hard. We found out we still have a ways to go. Not only from physicality standpoint, but also a conditioning standpoint. ” Tapia said. “That’s the kind of game we’re trying to get established here at Pierce. I’m really glad we (scheduled East Nicolaus), because we saw a lot of things that we can hopefully start to bring to our program.”
Pierce opens their Sacramento Valley League slate against Colusa (3-1) on Friday. East Nicolaus will face Golden Sierra at home this week, and are on bye the following week before opening Mid-Valley League schedule against Trinity. ■