As far as first games of the season go, they don’t get much better than Friday night’s Western Athletic Conference opening clash between Mountain House and Grace Davis at the Modesto Junior College football field.
In the end, the Mustangs came up just short. The Spartans came out of this one 23-21 victors. But it was a true thriller from start to finish. An absolute delight for the neutral. Drama, controversy, lead changes, suspense moments — you name it, this game had it all.
For the Mustangs, it was their first loss of the young season. But, despite his team not getting over the line — while having the hosts right where they wanted them down the stretch — Mustangs’ head coach Jabari Carr was not mad at what he saw.
“We were in the game at the end,” Carr told the Tracy Press in the aftermath. “The last couple of years, we haven’t been in this game. That tells me we’ve turned a corner and we’re building something special here. But hats off to Grace Davis and congratulations on the win.”
As Carr said, Mountain House were in it — and then some. Despite not playing their best football over the course of the 48 minutes, the win was within reach. The Mustangs were in possession of the ball, down two points, with 4:40 left on the clock in the fourth quarter.
They had just gotten an excellent stop inside Davis’ territory. Moments prior, while the game looked to be on ice in favor of the hosts, junior safety Cedrick Major Jr. recovered a Spartans fumble and darted into the end zone to make it 23-21. The momentum and all the wind was fully in the Mustangs’ sails.
However, as close as the inaugural league victory was, it ended up being just too far away. On the day, the Mustangs struggled with a couple of things. They were 0-5 on fourth downs and 0-1 on field goals — and that’s exactly what it came down to.
That, and a number of speculative decisions by the officials — who were rather trigger happy with their flags in the third and fourth quarter — somewhat killing the rhythm of the game.
In the fourth, the Mustangs would have found themselves right on the edge of the end zone after junior quarterback Amare Brooks found senior back Orlando Syph with a looping dime inside the Davis five. However, Syph’s catch was ruled an incomplete pass after the play.
Then, on 4th and seven, Brooks looked to be right on the money to hit his tight end, junior EJ Campbell, in stride — but the contact was ignored by the officials to force a Mustangs turnover on downs. And that was game, with just under a minute to go.
Brooks went 14-21 on the evening for 113 passing yards and had 18 carries for 75 rushing yards and a touchdown.
On another day, Mountain House put one of those bang-bang plays into the end zone and ride off into the sunset. Friday night, though, was not their night. But, the fact they were so close to pulling a win out of the bag is a promising sign of things to come.
“These guys have done everything we’ve asked of them and that’s all we can ask for,” Carr said. “There were moments during the game when we asked them to go make a play and they made it. That means they’re receptive to our coaching and that’s the biggest thing. Them being receptive to that is going to build our culture.”
The Mustangs defense played better than the 23 conceded points give them credit for. They had the hosts in a lot of uncomfortable positions throughout the game. Syph had five tackles and one sack on the night. Junior linebacker Jordan Dunlap had six tackles. Major Jr. had five.
But Carr gave credit to the Grace Davis program for being a well-oiled machine and that’s exactly what they were in ‘back against the wall’ situations. Junior receiver Izrael Sanchez was outstanding for Davis, coming up with a number of clutch plays to keep drives alive.
The Mustangs had a tremendous start to the second half after being down 10-0 at half-time. First, Brooks shined with a heads up play when he kept the ball to himself after seeing no options downfield. The quarterback held on and found gaps in the Davis defense to rush in for a 48-yard touchdown.
Then, still inside the first five minutes of the third, junior running back Jake Frazier punched in a three yarder to make it 14-10 Mustangs after all of Davis’ hard work just seemingly fell apart through two penalties on the team and one on their head coach which put the visitors in the red zone.
But, just when it looked like the Mustangs had stolen all of the momentum heading into the fourth quarter, Sanchez made two spectacular plays for the Spartans to regain them the lead.
First, he found junior receiver Jackson Brooks with a terrific dot down the line in a 1v1 situation with a Mustangs corner. Brooks won it and scored to make it 16-14 to end the third. Then, Sanchez escaped the pocket on a fake hand off and evaded all defenders brilliantly to find the end zone and make it 23-14 to start the fourth.
Yet another momentum switch. Yet another fantastic response from a team that was down. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, that Sanchez score ended up being the decider. A two-point loss when you have the ball and a chance to win is as tough as they come in sports.
Frazier admitted that it is a feeling that he and his teammates do not want to experience again. He said: “This is terrible and now we all know how it feels. We’re going to come back to practice ten times harder and we’re going to finish strong every time.”
Talking about why the Mustangs had to taste defeat against the Spartans, Frazier said: “We didn’t come out as fast as we wanted to and we just didn’t finish strong enough. But I know we could’ve gotten it done. We hadn’t felt a loss all season before this and it’s definitely going to motivate us to get stronger now.”
Frazier ended the game with 16 carries for 114 yards and a touchdown. Elsewhere on offense, senior receiver Isaiah Chenier had two receptions for 21 yards. Campbell had two receptions for 10 yards. Senior receiver Roy Gardner had three receptions for 24 yards.
A loss this tight truly shows just how small the margins are in sports. As little as one play — one decision — can take a whole team from elation to utter disappointment. Carr spoke on that and what getting to experience something like this early on can do for his team.
“This is as tough as they come,” he said. “You see it in sports all the time, teams come out and you play your hardest games and this team has been one of the toughest teams in the league and we get them in the first game every year. And we look forward to that.
“This game showed me that my players love each other because they played for each other. They don’t like to see each other hurt. They like to see each other celebrate. That’s what I saw. A bunch of teammates that love each other and play for each other.”
The Mustangs will get a chance to bounce back a week from now with a WAC home opener against Johansen. The junior varsity won their game against Grace Davis 20-0 earlier in the evening.