Yogi Berra’s old adage, “it ain’t over till it’s over” proved an unfortunate reality for the Pierce Bears last Friday night at Gregg LeMaster Field in Arbuckle as despite leading for nearly 47 minutes in the game, they saw the Live Oak Lions stage a late rally to steal a 14-13 victory and claim sole possession of first place in the Sacramento Valley League.
As anticipated, the battle between the SVL’s top teams was close albeit somewhat sloppily played as it included a combined seven fumbles, however in the end mental mistakes by the Bears made the Lions’ comeback that much easier.
Facing one of the Northern Section’s top runners in Live Oak’s Odin Moody, Pierce did a good job containing the junior holding him well below his 145 yard per game average and allowing the offense to grab the early lead.
That opportunity presented itself in the second quarter when a favorable spot on a fourth down play set up the only points of the first half, a 40-yard pass down the sideline from Eduardo Paiz to Luke Voorhees with just under seven minutes remaining in the half.
Although the Bear defense held strong, Live Oak had a chance in the final two minutes of the quarter after blocking a Pierce punt and recovering inside the red zone at the 10.
Yet Voorhees and Drew Hartill combined to sack Lion’s quarterback Tony Vallejo for a 16-yard loss which enabled the Bears to maintain their 7-0 advantage.
With no scoring in the third period, Pierce extended its lead when just two minutes into the final quarter Paiz connected with Daniel Medina who out ran the Lion defense for an 87-yard touchdown and provided what seemed to be the insurance the Bears needed.
However, in the long run what proved to be the difference in the contest then occurred, as the ensuing extra point attempt was blocked making the score 13-0.
After a three-and-out by both sides, Live Oak then put together a six play drive that was extended once by a bit of trickery and then by Bear two penalties which tacked on 30 yards allowing the Lions into the red zone and ultimately the end zone to close the gap to 13-7 with five minutes remaining in the game.
Still, the Bears seemed to have the situation in hand when on the subsequent kickoff, Tristan Miller returned the ball 33 yards to the Live Oak 40, but the drive stalled when Pierce was unable to get the two yards necessary to move the chains and thus with under four minutes left on the clock, gave the ball back to the Lions.
From this point the Lions turned to the passing game, something they’d done sparingly this season, but it was effective as Vallejo hit receiver Eddie Torres in the end zone to tie the score.
Although Live Oak converted the PAT to take the lead, Pierce still had a chance getting the ball back at their own 27 with 54 seconds left.
Initially things looked promising as Paiz hit Justin Mathews for 17-yard gain to put the ball near midfield.
However, a sack and a batted down pass on fourth down sealed the Bears’ fate and permitted the Lions to close out the game in victory formation.
With the loss, Pierce now finds itself a game behind the Lions in second place.
While disappointed, Coach Anthony Tapia hopes that his team finally comprehends the message he has preaching all year and that it will help them moving forward into the playoffs.
“Great teams don’t lose sight of the game. We hit a really bad stretch in the fourth quarter where our players fell for the trap and started talking back to the other team. Those mistakes killed our momentum and kept theirs alive. Unfortunately the best lessons come from a loss and I think our team finally understands what these types of things can do. I want us to grow closer from this and hopefully be better because of it,” said Tapia.
For the Bears, Voorhees had a noteworthy performance finishing with three receptions for 76 yards including the 40 yard touchdown, but for the most part, other than Medina’s 87 yard scoring reception, the Bear offense was quiet, held to its second lowest point output of the year.
Defensively, Jesus Ruiz led Pierce with nine tackles and fumble recovery while Eduardo Ambriz registered seven tackles and also recovered a fumble.
Pierce (6-3, 4-1) looks to finish the regular season strong when they travel to Durham Friday night and hope that their rival, Colusa, can knock off Lions, which would then afford the Bears a share of the SVL crown.