In a game that would send one team to the state championship and end the season of the other, a few key plays made the difference.
And for the Sutter High football team, a state title game trip came up just short for the third time in four years.
A last-minute drive for Sutter came up inches short of a first down as the Sierra High Timberwolves of Manteca took over and kneeled down to clinch a trip to the CIF State Division IV-A state championship game with a 17-13 win over Sutter at River Valley High's Falcon Stadium on Saturday night.
This Northern California Regional Bowl Game was comprised of a defensive battle as the Huskies (10-5) and Timberwolves (9-5) played a game of field position in the second half, and ultimately, the Timberwolves were able to convert more plays, including two first-half touchdowns from senior running back Mark Paule Jr., and a late-game field goal from Marcos Castillo that helped push Sierra ahead for good.
"This was one heck of a defensive game on both sides of the ball. (Sutter) was a stout defensive team, they played really well, and we were fortunate we got some breaks and ended up on the better end of the scoreboard," said Sierra coach Jeff Harbison. "We're peaking at the right time and we're healthy at the right time and we're playing good football right now."
While the last-minute drive wasn't converted to keep their chances for a state title game berth alive, the Huskies were hurt by several penalties that nullified big plays throughout the game. The biggest perhaps came early in the fourth quarter when a touchdown was taken off the board.
With Sutter's at the Sierra 11-yard line and facing third down, the Huskies drew up a double-pass from quarterback Tyler Reynolds to Isacc Torres, who moved toward his sideline before launching a high pass wide receiver Ben Heuvelhorst pulled down for a catch in the end zone as the Huskies' sideline erupted in celebration.
However, the side judge threw a flag as Sutter was called for an illegal forward pass that nullified the touchdown. The penalty, plus a resulting personal foul against Sutter, pushed the offense back to the 32-yard line. In Sutter coach Ryan Reynolds' mind, that was the play that changed the game.
"We had some calls go against us throughout the game, but you have to feel bad for our team in that moment. We thought it was a good play, but the referees didn't see it the same way," Reynolds said. "It's just a part of the game and you have to work really hard in trying not to let it affect you."
"I took the pass from Tyler and I ran around before looking up and seeing Ben in the end zone," said Torres, a senior. "That play pretty much decided the game in the end. We thought we had it."
The first half featured a back-and-forth battle with Sierra taking the early advantage on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Paule Jr. scoring on a 1-yard run to put the Timberwolves up 7-0.
The Huskies responded immediately as sophomore Bryce Kunkle took the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to the house for a touchdown that ignited the Sutter sidelines and the large contingent of Husky fans in the crowd as the game was tied at 7-7.
Sierra countered with another score as Paule Jr. scored on another 1-yard run to close out a five-play, 56-yard drive to regain the lead at 14-7 late in the first quarter.
The teams traded possessions before Sutter was able to drive down the field and get in position to score at the Sierra 6-yard line late in the second quarter. The Huskies ran the ball three straight times, but the Timberwolves didn't let them break through as Sutter settled for a 23-yard field goal by kicker James McHugh to cut the deficit to 14-10.
The Huskies got an interception by Kyle Boomgaarden to take over possession, but another penalty took away their last chance of the first half as a long pass from Tyler Reynolds to Torres deep into Sierra territory was called back due to a block in the back.
The Huskies opened the second half strong on offense, getting to the Sierra 5-yard line. But they were unable to capitalize with a touchdown as they settled for a second field goal from McHugh to make it 14-13.
Sutter had its chances in the second half, as its defense held strong in forcing stops from the Sierra offense as well as getting a key fumble deep in the red zone with eight minutes left.
Again, the Huskies were unable to convert the opportunity into points as McHugh's field goal attempt from 36 yards out was short and right of the goal post.
Unofficially, Paule Jr. led the Timberwolves with 23 carries for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Mark Vicente finished 9 for 16 with 88 yards and one interception, while adding 111 yards on 15 carries.
For the Huskies, Tyler Reynolds finished the game 8 for 11 with 98 yards. Kunkle finished with 59 yards on five carries and an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Jake Gildea ended the game with 65 yards on 12 rushes.
After the game, several Huskies wiped away tears as Ryan Reynolds addressed the team following a season that saw them rebound from a slow start to go on a run through the playoffs and just one game away from playing for a state title. Reynolds said he didn't want the game to take away from what he described as an amazing season for the program.
"The guys played their butts off tonight and they shouldn't let this loss take away from the incredible run they had this season," Reynolds said. "It's a hard pill to swallow right now, but they should be proud of what they've accomplished this year."
CONTACT Sports Reporter Kevin Scannell at 749-4789.