The electronic sign out front of Pinnell’s Carpet One on Mono Way hailed the return of the Sonora High football team.
Down the road, the bar area at The Peppery Bar & Grill bounced with the excitement of a Friday night under the hallowed lights of Dunlavy Field. There was a woman with a Sonora High baseball cap, smiling as she leaned over a partition, and alumni of all ages scattered across the restaurant.
With about 20 minutes to kickoff, the Golden Regiment – Sonora’s 100-piece marching band – began its walk toward the football field, streaming through campus as it played “Gotta Move.”
After more than a month of long bus rides and waving good-bye to its boys, it seemed everyone in this vibrant foothill community was ready for the Wildcats’ home debut.
Everyone except the Wildcats.
Top-ranked Sonora (5-1, 2-0) got off to a sloppy start, but found its form late in yet another thrilling Mother Lode League victory. Sammy Page scored on a 7-yard sprint with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left and then watched as the Wildcats’ much-maligned pass defense sealed a 28-27 victory over No. 9 Calaveras (3-3, 1-1) with two interceptions.
Redskins quarterback Dylan Byrd answered Page’s go-ahead touchdown with a 61-yard strike to Trevor Ramirez.
To be fair, Ramirez did most of the work.
Blanketed most of the night by Johnny Tahara, Ramirez hauled in the pass between two defenders, wiggled free and reversed field, and then won a footrace to the pylon to make it 28-27 with 1:55 left.
Calaveras coach Jason Weatherby left his offense on the field, opting to go for two points – and the win. Byrd rolled to his left, threw awkwardly across his body, and his pass was intercepted by linebacker Jesus Rodriguez.
“We call him the Riverboat Gambler on our sideline,” Sonora coach Bryan Craig said of Weatherby. “We expect just about anything out of Jason. He keeps us on our toes over here.”
Calaveras still had hope, though it would be fleeting. The Redskins recovered the onside kick, but Byrd was picked off by sophomore Kane Rogers two plays later.
The Wildcats finished in victory formation, rewarding their fans with an eighth straight MLL victory. Sonora, dubbed the “Cardiac Kids” by Craig, has won three games this season by two points or less.
This one was another gut-check.
One week after needing a late rally and overtime to defeat Argonaut, Craig challenged his team at the half to find its identity. Sonora trailed 14-7 with a performance marred by penalties, special-teams mistakes and a turnover in the red zone.
“It’s nice to be 2-0 in league, especially getting a win over Calaveras, one of the toughest teams in league,” Craig said. “But the way we’re playing right now, we have to keep our eye on the prize. Each week, we have to come out and get that win.
“We’ve tried to tell everyone that things would be different. Last year’s team was exceptional. They were a very good team,” he added. “We knew Calaveras would be well-coached and would give us a hard time, as well as all the other teams. This is what you’re going to see from now on until that next great group comes along.”
Sonora has found a nice building block in Rogers, an electric two-way talent who shook off a crippling hit early in the fourth quarter.
In a punting situation, Rogers improvised and attempted to pick up the first down. He was speared just as he let go the ball – which fell incomplete – and remained on the turf as medical staff appeared. He waved off help and ran off the field under his own power. He returned to the game and proved the difference.
“They said, ‘You need a stretcher?’ There was no way I was going out,” Rogers said, blood dripping down his forearm. “We had a game on the line. I’m putting everything out there. I’m not going out unless I break my neck for this team.”
Rogers had a 20-yard reception to move the ball to the 6 and then escorted Page into the end zone moments later with a crushing block that sent a Calaveras player soaring.
“We don’t give up,” said Rogers, who also had 48 yards on six carries. “That’s our team. We’ll play ’til the very end.”
Shane Torre had two touchdown catches for Calaveras and snuffed out Sonora’s sweep most of the night. Byrd finished with 156 yards and three touchdowns on 9-of-18 passing, but his interceptions proved costly in the end.
Fullback Bradley Canepa tallied Sonora’s first touchdown on a 1-yard plunge early in the second quarter. That was the only highlight from an otherwise choppy first half for the Wildcats.
“In the beginning we were frustrated but we made the adjustments, settled down and executed,” said Page, who finished with 140 total yards, a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ian Cicero and engineered a 14-play scoring drive to start the second half. Wyatt Faughnan finished that tone-setting march with a 5-yard toss to make it 14-14.
“That’s all our offense is – it’s the small things. Do the small things right and big things will show. That’s all we preach. We had more energy. We came out strong and we finished even stronger.”