On the biggest plays of the night, the Turlock and Tracy head coaches challenged their quarterbacks to win a playoff game.
Congratulations, Logan Fife, you get top-seeded Folsom.
Fife rolled to his left and led Trevion Shadrck-Harris down the sideline and into the end zone, completing Tracy’s 24-14 victory over Turlock on Thursday in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
Fife’s heroics came on a gutsy fourth-down call late in the fourth quarter.
Instead of attempt a field goal with Parker Bonin, who split the uprights from 32 yards earlier in the night, Tracy (8-3) asked Fife to plunge the dagger into the Central California Conference champions.
On fourth-and-14, Fife fled the pocket, where he had been under duress for most of the second half. He targeted Harris, who had a step on his defender.
The throw was perfect, the catch complete, and just like that, the game in hand.
“I think they’re pretty stout across the board,” Turlock coach James Peterson said of Tracy, which won both meetings this season by a combined score of 54-36. “They got good offensive linemen. They’ve got great skill players. They’re fast and they’re physical. They run to the ball on defense. I think they’re a pretty sound football team all the way around.
“It was tough to find a weakness tonight.”
Turlock (8-3) mustered one last drive, but failed to convert its own fourth-down try deep in Tracy territory.
Junior quarterback Jonah Kosakiewicz short-armed a throw to Cameran Sherwood on fourth-and-4 from the Tracy 24-yard line.
Peterson chose to leave kicker Dallin Tilby on the sideline, hoping to secure six points.
Tilby has a career-long of 47 yards in a game and 65 yards in practice. During halftime, he stroked field goals from 55 yards.
Peterson chose a different end-game strategy. He hoped to save Tilby’s dangerous right leg for a dramatic finish. It never materialized. Instead, Tilby watched the final few seconds tick off, his helmet propped on the crown of his head.
“I thought about it,” Peterson said of using Tilby with 2:19 left in the game. “I felt like we were close enough to score. If we could get the points there, get those six points, we could go back later and not get quite as deep. Dallin can kick from anywhere.”
Turlock was its own worst enemy in the battle for The Dog Bone, the pet store find painted in the schools’ colors. Kosakiewicz turned the ball over three times, including fumbles on back-to-back possessions spanning the first and second half.
Tracy rocketed out to a 14-0 lead on touchdown runs by sophomore call-up Elias Williams in the first quarter.
The hole proved to be too deep for Turlock, now 6-14 all-time in the postseason.
“I felt like our defense was on the field all night. We’re three-and-out on ‘O’ several, several times,” Peterson said. “We just could never get into a rhythm. That’s just how it went tonight. Tracy came out and dominated at home.”
It wasn’t a runaway victory, though. Despite all of its struggles, Turlock clawed to within 17-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Kosakiewicz was brilliant on the drive, rallying Turlock with his arm and his feet.
He converted a fourth-and-3 near midfield with a sprint to the first-down stick, and then lofted a 23-yard pass to Jordan Porter, who made a sensational catch between defenders.
Four plays later, Kosakiewicz trucked in from the 5-yard line to pull Turlock within three.
Peterson finally felt the energy he had tried to coax out of his sideline through the first three quarters.
“When we got to that point, I think our guys believed,” Peterson said. “That was the hardest part for me as a coach, because that’s what I’ve been trying to get them to do all night. Just believe you have a chance and you deserve to be victorious tonight. It’s just tough with young kids; tough to get them to believe.
“I thought we had some buy-in right there and we lost it somewhere.”
With a chance to tie or take the lead on its next possession, Kosakiewicz was picked off by Myles Walker, who ran it back to the 14-yard line.
Fife sealed the victory four plays later.
Tracy’s reward is a road trip to Folsom to face the tournament’s top seed. Folsom has won three of the last four D-I championships and is ranked No. 6 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
Peterson was disappointed with the result, but not the journey. In its final season in the CCC, Turlock defended its title and carried a seven-game winning streak into the playoffs.
“I don’t want to take anything from this football team. They played outstanding,” Peterson said. “They went out in the Central California Conference with back-to-back championships.
“I feel like it’s tough when you get into the playoffs because if you don’t go all the way you end in a loss. There’s that feeling that, ‘Oh, man, we failed.’ I don’t want our guys to feel like that, because they have a lot to be proud of.”