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Warriors earn grid rematch at CIF finals

Joe Naiman

Village News Reporter

The 2021 Fallbrook High School football season ended with a 29-28 loss to Palo Verde Valley in a CIF Division V semifinal playoff game. This year, Fallbrook and Palo Verde are both in Division IV, and the two teams will face each other in the CIF championship game Nov. 25 at Escondido High School.

Fallbrook advanced to the CIF final with a 21-3 home victory Nov. 18 against Mission Bay. Palo Verde Valley had a Nov. 18 semifinal at Coronado and prevailed by a 35-15 score.

“We’re going to have our hands full this week,” said Fallbrook head coach Ross Johnson.

The victory over Coronado gave Palo Verde Valley a 12-1 season record. The Yellow Jackets were undefeated in three Desert League games to obtain the league championship. Fallbrook shared the Valley League championship with a 4-1 league record, and the Warriors’ triumph against Mission Bay gave Fallbrook a 9-3 overall mark.

“Mission Bay has a really good offense. They made great plays,” Johnson said. “We just did a good job of limiting the damage all night.”

The Fallbrook defense allowed some big plays but performed well when defense was most needed. “They held them to three points and that was from us turning the ball over deep in our own territory,” Johnson said.

Palo Verde’s path to the 2021 CIF Division V championship included a 41‑19 win over Mission Bay in last year’s CIF final. Mission Bay was also moved up to Division IV, and the Buccaneers advanced to this year’s semifinal at Fallbrook with a 17-10 quarterfinals victory at Montgomery. In that game, Montgomery held a 10-0 lead before the Buccaneers scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

Montgomery’s scores consisted of a second-quarter field goal and a third-period Aztecs touchdown. Fallbrook scored against Mission Bay in the first quarter, on the first possession of the game. Due to an injury to first-string Mission Bay kicker Jacob Sloan, Patrick Leahy handled kicking duties Nov. 18. Leahy’s opening kickoff traveled to the Fallbrook 18, and Luke O’Brien returned the ball 16 yards to the Fallbrook 34.

All 11 plays of Fallbrook’s first possession were rushes. After two third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion, Alan Leon ran 24 yards into the end zone for a touchdown with 6:03 remaining in the first quarter.

“Amazing blocking,” Leon said. “The holes opened up.”

Josh Gomez kicked the extra point to give Fallbrook a 7-0 lead. Gomez’s ensuing kickoff was to the Mission Bay 5, and Jack Ryan’s 23-yard return brought the ball to the 28-yard-line. The Buccaneers’ first offensive play was a 13-yard pass, but the Warriors’ defense then held the Buccaneers to four yards on three plays and Leahy punted.

The Warriors eventually reached the Mission Bay 27 before a fourth-down sack gave Mission Bay possession. Not only were the Buccaneers unable to obtain a first down, but Will Sherman intercepted a pass to give the Warriors possession at their own 31.

“I think it really helped our team get momentum,” Sherman said. “I think it really just set the tone for what was coming later tonight.”

A sack gave the Warriors fourth down at their own 45 and ended the first quarter with the 7-0 Fallbrook lead. The first play of the second quarter was a 40-yard Gomez punt downed at the Mission Bay 15.

One of Gomez’s other punts later in the game was the victim of a high snap, but his other four punts all gave the Buccaneers possession inside their own 20.

“I’ve been working on it all season,” Gomez said.

“Josh Gomez continues to be a weapon for us,” Johnson said. “We definitely gave our defense a lot of field position to work with.”

The Buccaneers improved their field position with 13-yard and 48-yard passes from Ethan Silber to Gavin Marzion on consecutive plays. The next play was a one-yard rushing loss, and after two incomplete passes the fourth-down pass gained 17 yards and placed the ball five yards away from the end zone. Runs of two yards and one yard were followed by a rushing loss of a yard. The fourth-down run gained two yards, giving Fallbrook possession at the Warriors’ 1.

Although a third-down run gained six yards, a fumble was recovered by Mission Bay’s David Maier at the Fallbrook 14. A six-yard run and two incomplete passes forced Mission Bay to settle for a 25-yard Leahy field goal with 5:21 left in the half.

The kickoff return brought the ball to the Fallbrook 28. Five first-down runs brought the ball to the Mission Bay 6. Chris Bausch then ran into the end zone for a touchdown with 43 seconds remaining in the half, and Gomez’s conversion kick made the score 14-3.

“We had a good first half. We struggled in the second half a little bit,” said Fallbrook quarterback Evan Thomas.

Gomez’s second-half kickoff was returned from the 5 to the 22, but the Fallbrook defense held Mission Bay to five yards on the next three plays. The Buccaneers’ next possession began at their own 20 and once again did not produce a first down. Although Fallbrook was not able to score on the ensuing drive, Gomez’s punt was downed at the 8-yard-line.

A 35-yard pass from Silber to Maier and an 18-yard run by Ryan advanced the ball to the Fallbrook 39. The next play would have been an interception by George Aguilar returned for a Fallbrook touchdown, but a roughing the passer penalty nullified that score while giving Mission Bay 15 additional yards. A second-down pass to Meier gave Mission Bay first down at the Fallbrook 13. A quarterback fumble was recovered by Mission Bay but moved the ball back 11 yards and forced Leahy to try a 40-yard field goal which was short.

Fallbrook’s subsequent possession ended in a punt, but the Buccaneers obtained one first down before turning the ball over on downs. Fallbrook couldn’t obtain a first down on the Warriors’ next possession, but Gomez’s 40-yard punt was downed at the Mission Bay 19.

Two first-down passes moved the ball to the Fallbrook 34, and after an incomplete pass, Angel Angulo sacked Silber for an 11-yard loss. An incomplete pass and a false start penalty gave Mission Bay fourth down at midfield. An incomplete pass gave Fallbrook the ball with 4:56 remaining.

The Warriors ran for the next eight plays. Two third-down conversions were followed by Leon’s 21-yard run to the Mission Bay 2. Leon then rushed for a touchdown with 1:01 left and Gomez kicked the extra point. The Buccaneers advanced to their own 35 on the ensuing possession before time ran out.

“That’s one of the best games our defense has played all year,” said Fallbrook linebacker Anthony Thomas.

Escondido High School is not only the site of the CIF final but also where Johnson played and was an assistant coach before becoming the Warriors’ head coach this year. “It doesn’t matter to me,” he said of Escondido being the finals site.

What was then Qualcomm Stadium was the site of Fallbrook’s last CIF championship game in 2003. The Warriors lost that 7-3 game to Torrey Pines. Fallbrook won the 2000 CIF championship at Qualcomm Stadium with a 50-12 victory over Carlsbad.

“We’re excited for it,” Johnson said of playing in the championship game.

Although Johnson wasn’t involved with the Fallbrook team which lost to Palo Verde in last year’s semifinals, many of his players were. The 2022 Yellow Jackets lost their Aug. 18 opener against Calexico by one point and will take a 12-game winning streak into the CIF final. This year, Palo Verde has scored 534 points and allowed 183.

“We know just how good they are,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a really good matchup.”


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