Everything was going right for Sanger Apaches during the first quarter of their league-title matchup with San Joaquin Memorial Friday night at Tom Flores Stadium. However, after Sanger jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, an injury to Apache’s senior quarterback Noel Collazo seemingly changed the momentum of the game as the Panthers were able to rally and escape with a 31-28 victory to claim the outright CMAC title.
“We really felt we had the upper hand early on,” said Pena. “We felt our game plan was taking form. But when Noel went down it all came to a screeching halt.”
The Apaches did what they’ve done many times this season, they set the tone early by scoring on their first possession. That score came on a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Morgan Privett after a long run by Collazo took the Apaches deep into Panther territory.
Then, after the Apache’s defense recovered a fumble at their own 18-yard-line on San Joaquin Memorial’s first possession, one play was all Sanger needed to take a two score lead. Taking the ball up the Panther sideline, Sanger’s Kosi Agina broke free for an 82-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers responded with an 8-play drive that took them 66 yards, ending with a 4-yard touchdown run by Memorial’s Jordan Hornbreak.
With the lead down to one score, the biggest shot to the Apaches came on their ensuing possession when Collazo stayed down after being tackled on a quarterback-keeper. He was walked off the field favoring his right shoulder and was unable to return to the game.
With Sanger’s reserve quarterback, John Pena, out while recovering from knee surgery, the Apaches turned to junior Nick Wise, who is listed as a wide receiver and defensive back.
The transition didn’t go too well for the Apaches, as Wise fumbled his first two snaps, both of which were recovered by the Panthers.
“It’s really tough for anyone to come in and jump in – in that kind of environment, in that intense of a game,” said Pena.
Memorial was able to capitalize on the first turnover, recovered inside Sanger territory, after Panther’s quarterback Finn Collins connected with wide receiver TJ Hall for a 20-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 14 a piece.
Fortunately for the Apaches, after Wise fumbled his second snap, Sanger was able to get the ball right back on an interception to end the first quarter.
After an exchange of possessions, Sanger was able to recapture the lead on another breakaway run by Agina, this time taking it to the house on a 58-yard scamper.
The Panthers then tied the game on their ensuing possession on another goal line rush by Hornbreak with just less than two minutes remaining in the half. Then, after getting the ball back with just seconds left in the half, the Panthers were able to beat the Apache’s prevent defense on a long ball caught deep in Sanger territory by Jalen McMillan, who finished the night with 201 receiving yards on 11 catches.
A facemask penalty on the Apaches moved the ball to the Sanger 10-yard line, setting up a last second 27-yard field goal by Panther’s kicker Carlo Bravo to give Memorial a 24-21 lead at the half.
“We expected to face what we saw,” Pena said of facing San Joaquin Memorial. “They’re very talented on the perimeter.”
The field goal may have been the difference in the game as both teams managed to score one touchdown each in the second half. San Joaquin Memorial scored late in the third on Hornbreak’s third rushing touchdown, another goal line carry.
But Sanger’s offensive struggles continued in the second half as they went most of the second half without a score. They managed to get into the end zone late in the fourth quarter with a 4-yard pass connection from Wise to senior wide receiver Dolce Calandra in the back of the end zone. The score brought the Apaches to within a field goal but didn’t leave much time on the clock, just 43 seconds.
Sanger’s onside kick was then recovered by Panther’s Jayden Jones to seal the game, and title for San Joaquin Memorial.
“We just kept battling,” added Pena. “For us to lose by only three points, it says a lot about our kids.”
Though Sanger ended up on the losing end on Friday night, Agina, the Apache’s lead running back had another stellar performance. The senior running back became the 11th Apache to run for over 2000 yards after rushing for 178 yards on 19 carries, giving him 2060 yards over 19 games.
His two touchdowns also make him sixth in all-time touchdowns scored by an Apache. With 34 career touchdowns, Agina sits just behind Sanger’s Andrew Azua (13-16) and Jalen Cropper (16-17), both of whom finished with 36 career touchdowns.
Despite the loss, and finishing third in the CMAC standings after Bullard defeated Edison on Nov. 1, the Apaches received a No. 4 seeding in the CIF Division II playoffs. Hanford, who the Apaches lost to in September, received the No. 1 seed after running the table this season while San Joaquin Memorial (9-1, 5-0) received the No. 2 seed.
Redwood (9-1, 4-1), coached by former Dinuba High head football coach Kevin Scharton, received the No. 3 seed. His former team, the Dinuba Emperors, will be traveling to Sanger tomorrow night to take on the Apaches in the first round of Division II playoffs.
Dinuba enters as the No. 13 seed and have racked up over 100 points in their last two games, against Exeter and Hanford West.