A superb senior night defensive display from the Bulldogs’ – in a 23-7 win over the Lodi Flames – saw the Tracy High varsity football team strengthen their case for a home game in the upcoming California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
For large parts of the evening at the packed Wayne Schneider Stadium, this clash between two eerily similar offenses was a cagey one. Both teams had lengthy drives that took a lot of time off the clock and both defenses came to play.
The opening quarter saw the hosts grab a 3-0 lead through a field goal after their good running was brought to a halt on Lodi’s 36 yard line. Junior kicker ‘Shemmy’ Akinleye trotted out and nailed a 43 yard kick right down the middle to set his new career best.
The visitors responded to start the second with a terrific 52 yard run from Flames’ back Kaiden Merryman. Finding gaps was very hard to come by for both team’s running backs all night long but when Merryman found one, his speed sent him in for six.
The subsequent point after was good to make it 7-3, but little did Lodi know – that would be their last scratch of the game.
Led by linebacker duo of senior Darrian Marieiro (13 tackles) and sophomore Elijah Gutierrez (11 tackles), the Tracy defense stood firm from that point onwards, giving their offense the stage to take care of business down the other end.
Seniors Isaac Salinas and Aidan Monarrez delivered eight big tackles each. Senior Santiago Mahoney had seven. Junior Wesley Finton chipped in with five.
“It was an exemplary (defensive) performance,” ‘Dogs head coach Jeff Pribble said afterwards. “We just keep grinding. We don’t give up. That required super big time discipline tonight and that’s what I’m proud of the most. They’ve got great players on that team and I’m just really proud of my boys and the communications that they shared on the field.”
Following that minor setback, the well drilled Tracy offense got back to work. Marshaled by junior quarterback Aidan Van Os – first varsity start, deputizing for the injured senior Cameron Ross – the ‘Dogs diligently followed their game plan and chipped away at the Flames’ D-line.
Bar a few pass attempts, the hosts persisted with their running game – per their modus operandi – and eventually found what they were looking for on a terrific drive at the end of the second quarter.
Senior receiver Kurtis Maynor did not have a single reception on the night, however his input was priceless for the ‘Dogs as he was utilized out of the backfield as a handoff option. His eight carries amounted to 47 yards and two of them put the offense in excellent field position to work.
The first was an 18 yard run for a crucial first down to break into the visitors territory. Senior back David Garcia promptly followed that up with a 31 yard carry – his longest of the night – to land at the one yard line behind an enormous block from Van Os who temporarily turned into a tight end.
From there, senior back Mason Meyers put the dot over the ‘i’ and punched the ball in for the score to make it 10-7 after the PAT.
Tracy brought the lead into halftime with the defense setting the tone for the rest of the game in the second half of that quarter. The Bulldogs had eight players with over five tackles on the night. The Flames were extinguished every time they got even remotely close to the home end zone and Gutierrez credited that to the work that he and his teammates put in during the week.
“We were prepared,” he said. “We knew what we were going up against and that’s how we approached the week, busting our butts off.”
Gutierrez has been one of the surprises of the season for Tracy. The sophomore was brought up from junior varsity shortly after the campaign had begun as an injury replacement and has made this level of football his home. He looks extremely comfortable and is rapidly becoming one of the leaders on that side of the ball.
Speaking about the seemingly seamless transition into varsity, Gutierrez said: “It’s so rewarding. I just keep looking to learn. There is still so much for me to prove.”
Pribble has preached a next man up mentality to his team all year long, even before football drills went into action. As one can imagine, he has been nothing short of pleased with the impact Gutierrez has had on his team.
That mentality has also rubbed off on young Van Os who stepped into the fold and delivered a confident performance behind center.
“It’s a family environment,” Pribble said. “It’s trust with everybody here. We’ve had lots of injuries on this football team this year and nobody has complained about it. It has been about the next man up and that’s why you see a great young player like six (Gutierrez) here after we had a linebacker break his ankle.
“Then, when Cam (Ross) took a huge hit last week, we pushed forward, he supported Van Os and that’s what we carried into this thing. Confidence in each other. Confidence is king, that is one of our things around here and we try to use our relationships to big up the individual. These boys really stacked up behind No. 4 tonight and he believed that we could win that way tonight.”
And win they did, with Van Os delivering the goods with Tracy’s next touchdown to make it 17-7 and all but put the game away.
Despite the QB only having two completions (2-6) on the night, Van Os got really comfortable in the second half and showed great patience to finish off another solid drive for the hosts.
After a cagey start to the second half, with both teams getting a stop each, the ‘Dogs started picking the Flames apart on the following possession. The scoring drive consisted of three big plays.
Van Os started it with a key first down completion for 13 yards to senior receiver Jeremiah Zamora (who hauled in both of his successful attempts, 20 yards). Meyers then found a gap similar to the one Garcia pounced on earlier and took the ‘Dogs deeper into Lodi territory with a 31 yard carry.
Maynor then brought the ‘Dogs into the red zone with a 14 yard pick up on another trick handoff in the backfield. The icing was put on the cake by Van Os with a 4 yard keeper to score.
“It felt great,” Van Os said about getting a touchdown on his first varsity start. “Everyone was so hyped for me, it was awesome. Just having this team behind my back is amazing. I love every single one of these guys, they’ve been supporting me the whole time.”
When asked about his mindset heading into this game and how he felt leading the offense out there, Van Os said: “I felt good. I knew that I had to go out there and execute like we had been in practice. You just have to be ready the whole time. The moment came and I just had to do what I know I can do and what I’ve been doing all year.”
Van Os had seven carries for 52 yards on his full debut. Garcia had four carries for 40.
Meyers broke the 100 yard barrier once again with 126 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns. He delivered Tracy’s nightcap with a 34 yard breakaway rush into the end zone to make it 23-7 in the fourth quarter.
The ‘Dogs put an exclamation point on their defensive display with a massive fourth quarter, fourth down stop inside their five to kill off any hopes of a comeback for Lodi.
All in all, the hosts delivered a very complete performance – just like Pribble wanted – improving to 3-1 in Tri-City Athletic League play with one game to go.
“I was hoping to come out here tonight and make a statement,” Pribble said. “I wanted to let everybody know that we want to be back in the playoffs. We want that home game. Tracy High is here to play football, whatever we get – be it home or away.”