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Honk twice, Willows repeats as D3 champions
For the second consecutive year the Willows High football team turned its season around in the playoffs, pulling off a series of upsets en route to a Northern Section Division III championship.
The Honkers survived an injury to one of their best players and overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to beat Hamilton High 21-20 on Wednesday night in Hamilton City.
"I don't know what it is, I don't know if it's the mentality of these kids, I don't know. They're clutch, they've got ice in their veins," Willows coach Jim Ward said.
Senior defensive lineman Trevor Candelaria re-aggravated a knee injury in the fourth quarter with the game tied 14-14, and four plays later Braves running back Austin Burbank shot through the line for a 48-yard touchdown run, but the Honkers caught a break on the extra point when heavy pressure caused the kick to sail wide left.
With Candelaria out on the offensive line, the Honkers marched 63 yards in 10 plays and junior running back Geoffrey Bateman ran in an 11-yard touchdown with 3:18 left in the game.
"I'm extremely proud of them. It sucks having to go down that late in the game but I knew my team could step up, I knew they could win it and I knew they wanted it real bad," Candelaria said.
Willows (9-4, second place Sacramento Valley League) was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play and Hamilton chose to have the penalty enforced on the extra-point attempt instead of the kickoff, forcing Daniel Macias to attempt the kick from 36 yards out.
The distance, a muddy field and the championship stage didn't phase the junior kicker, who kicked a game-winning 27-yard field goal in the rain Friday against top-seeded, and previously undefeated, Pierce. His kick Wednesday was a no-doubter, well above the crossbar and right down the middle.
"I don't get that nervous so I knew it wasn't that far of a kick. I calmed myself down and just kicked it. It felt good, I heard the crowd cheering and I was like there goes my second game-winning kick," Macias said.
Hamilton (9-4, Mid-Valley League champions) had a chance to respond with two timeouts and nearly three minutes remaining, after Burbank returned the kickoff 24 yards to the Braves' 36-yard line.
Disaster struck first.
Junior running back Andrew Shippelhoute lost his grip on the ball in the backfield and Honkers junior defensive lineman Jacob Candelaria dove on the ball in the mud as his older brother cheered from the Willows bench.
"That made me so proud of (Jacob). That's my little brother and we've always been working together our whole lives, and this is the last year we get to play together. I'm going to miss him but he's ready, he's ready to do it by himself," Trevor Candelaria said.
All Willows needed was one first down to seal back-to-back championships and Bateman lunged forward for 3 yards on third-and-two. Senior quarterback Ulises Esparza took two knees before the Honkers could celebrate.
Hamilton coach Ryan Bentz said his team's commitment to improving during the offseason and senior leadership during the season helped the Braves get as far as they did.
"They battled. Somebody had to lose, and a couple of breaks didn't go our way. They're a great bunch of guys, I wouldn't trade any of them," Bentz said.
The Braves took a 7-0 lead with 20 seconds left in the first quarter on a 66-yard touchdown pass from Brad Hall to Leland Prior. Willows tied it seven minutes later on a 1-yard touchdown run by Noah Enns, and the score remained tied going into halftime.
The Honkers opened the second half with a 15-play, 75-yard drive and Esparza tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to senior captain Eduardo Briones.
"The beginning of the season we were down, not really thinking we could win. We took some talking from the coach and between us, and finally decided let's go for it, it's our last year, why not," Briones said.
The Braves punted on the next drive but Jaime Fuentes landed on the ball after the Honkers' return man couldn't handle the punt. Shippelhoute took the first play after the recovery 34 yards to the Honkers' 20 to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Burbank.
Bateman led the Honkers with 68 yards rushing on 12 carries and scored a touchdown, Enns ran for 55 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and Chris Walter carried four times for 33 yards. Esparza completed 10 of 19 passes for 94 yards and a touchdown, and Briones was his top target with six catches for 52 yards and a score.
Enns contributed a sack on defense, Jacob Candelaria added a sack and a fumble recovery, and Garrett Enos had a sack and forced a fumble.
Shippelhoute led Hamilton with 15 carries for 94 yards and Burbank added 71 yards on seven carries and two touchdowns.
CONTACT Kirk Barron at 458-2121 or email@example.com.