Modesto Christian running back Paul Puaauli refused to give up on a tide-turning touchdown, and his teammates have taken that same fight to the Trans-Valley League.
“The TVL title is within our grasp,” Modesto Christian coach Mike Parsons said following a wild 42-41 victory over Ripon at Stouffer Field.
Indeed it is.
The Crusaders trailed 14-0 early in the first quarter, but rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a lead position in the chase for supremacy in the Stanislaus District’s toughest small-school league.
Modesto Christian (3-4) and Escalon (4-3) are tied atop the standings at 2-0 with their Oct. 27 showdown looming, but each faces a considerable test next week.
The Crusaders host Hilmar (4-3, 1-1), the two-time defending champion. The Yellowjackets topped Hughson (3-4, 0-2) on Friday, 29-19.
Escalon hosts ancient rival Ripon (4-3, 1-1), which nearly pulled off a miraculous fourth quarter comeback against the Crusaders.
Trailing 42-28 with less than 10 minutes left, the Indians pulled within 42-41 on a pair of touchdown passes by Ryan Daggett (11-20, 195 yards).
Daggett found Dylan Sexton in the back of the end zone to make it 42-35 with 4:36 left. A workhorse in the Indians’ Pistol Wing offense, Sexton made a diving catch beneath the goal post.
He also had a rushing touchdown.
After Ripon recovered the onside kick, Daggett connected with James Gaalswyk on fourth-and-goal from the 16-yard line. Daggett rolled his left and threw to the front pylon for Gaalswyk, who controlled the ball through contact.
Ripon elected to go for the tie.
Mario Hernandez had other plans.
The Modesto Christian sophomore crashed through the line of scrimmage, extending his left arm to block the kick. He said he was actually pushed into the path of the ball by a Ripon blocker.
“I told myself I’ve got to block this; I can’t let him kick it in,” Hernandez said. “That was the first time I’ve blocked a kick in a game that’s actually mattered.”
Xavier Carlton fell on top of the ensuing onside kick as the Crusaders’ special teams shored up the win.
Puaauli led a balanced attack for Modesto Christian with three rushing touchdowns.
After missing his entire junior season with an ACL injury, Puaauli showed flashes of the impact he can have on both sides of the ball.
“We just have heart. (Ripon) coming back was crazy, but my team fought through it,” Puaauli said. “That’s what we’ve been working on. It was just a blessing to get this ‘W.’ ”
Puaauli had two 1-yard scoring runs, but it was his 21-yard touchdown in the first quarter that ignited the Crusaders. Trailing 14-0 and his team besieged by penalties at the start, Puaauli took a handoff and dove into the pile at the line of scrimmage.
“From here, I thought he was stopped,” Parsons said.
Puaauli kept his feet moving and bounced the run outside, bolting into the end zone for the first of 28 unanswered points.
Modesto Christian’s versatile, quick-strike offense came alive.
Isaiah Torres rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries. His 58-yard scamper gave the Crusaders a 21-14 lead at the intermission.
“We let them punch us in the mouth,” Parsons said, “but we finally woke up and started playing.”
Davion Gates and Patrick Garcia also had rushing touchdowns for Modesto Christian. Garcia had a 1-yard plunge on the first possession of the third quarter.
Gates followed with a 48-yard sweep to make it 35-21.
Rory Hanson (four catches, 43 yards) had a pivotal two-point conversion in the second quarter, and Hernandez made six of his seven PATs. Each point was crucial.
“To win TVL is our goal ... to beat all the TVL teams,” Puaauli said. “We’re tired of losing, and we just wanted to win tonight.”
Ripon rallied in the fourth quarter behind Daggett’s marksmanship and Sexton’s determination.
Daggett was 5 for 5 in the third quarter and started the comeback with a 1-yard sneak to start the fourth quarter. Both of his touchdown passes came on fourth-and-goal.
Sexton’s bruising dives slowly wore down the Crusaders’ interior line. Bottled up for most of the first half, Sexton rushed for 100 of his 102 yards in the second half.