The Lone Pine Golden Eagles will have home-field advantage in round two of the CIF 8-Man football playoffs.
The 32-14 win over the Lancaster Baptist Eagles Friday night secured Lone Pine’s spot in the quarterfinals. The Golden Eagles won the coin flip Monday morning, giving them the advantage over Excelsior Education Center in the Nov. 18 match-up.
For the first time since their narrow win over Tonopah in pre-league, the Golden Eagles faced a challenge. Lancaster running backs Morgan Daufen and Josue Aguirre were explosive and the defense was unrelenting. Then there was the rain – not what you want in your first playoff game as a team, especially when your passing game is your ace in the hole.
By the second quarter the Golden Eagles settled into their game, knowing they were a better team.
“Lancaster has a pretty good running back,” said coach Chris Riesen. “But, we held him below his game average and limited their offense to 14 points.”
The Golden Eagles will need all that confidence and luck to beat Excelsior Eagles of Victorville, the number two seed in the division and the odds-on favorite to take the championship. Excelsior beat Cate High School, 68-44, Saturday in Victorville and Riesen went to the game to size up the competition.
“They’re a bigger and faster version of Trona,” he said. And they play the same kind of smash mouth offense, averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game and less than 70 yards in the air.
Lone Pine beat the smaller, slower version 51-14, but Trona’s team didn’t feature three linemen hovering around 300 lbs.
“We’re going to have to adjust our defense,” Riesen said, “take some chances to stop their run. Excelsior plays at a different level. The offensive line comes in in a big hurry. We’ll have to play a perfect game and they’ll have to make some mistakes.”
Given drier weather and the usually spot-on combination of quarterback Robert Hunter to Casey Sullivan and Seth Muniz, Riesen said the Golden Eagles will “have to score in bunches.”
Lone Pine is used to scoring in bunches, but between the wet playing conditions and playoff nerves, they didn’t smother Lancaster in TDs. The Golden Eagles got on the scoreboard midway through the first quarter with a fumble recovery by Paul Lucia, giving Lone Pine possession on Lancaster’s 9-yard line.
Hunter moved the ball to the 5; Mike Palsrok, to the 2. Hunter finished the 9-yard drive, added the point-after and Lone Pine was on the board 7-0.
Lancaster was forced to punt the ball away after stalling out at their own 15 after the Lone Pine TD. Sullivan was on the receiving end and wove his way through Lancaster’s special teams to midfield. An illegal procedure penalty against Lone Pine put the Golden Eagles at second and 20 on Lancaster’s 27. Hunter connected with Sullivan for the TD and Lone Pine had some breathing room at 13-0.
Lancaster answered quickly with a 65-yard TD run by Josue Aguirre, narrowing the lead 13-6.
Lone Pine fumbled the kick return and Lancaster recovered, setting up its assault on Lone Pine’s 18. Daufen slipped through the Lone Pine defense for a TD, then ran in the 2-point conversion to put Lancaster ahead 13-14.
Lone Pine set up a drive on its own 16; moving the ball to the 32 on a pass play to Muniz. Hunter went to Sullivan with a spectacular pass and a first down on Lancaster’s 32. A quick hand-off to Palsrok resulted in a first at the 22; a face mask penalty against Lancaster placed the ball at the 10.
The Hunter-Sullivan combination worked for Lone Pine’s third touchdown and the Golden Eagles regained the lead 20-14.
The Lone Pine defense went to work on Lancaster’s rushing game, forcing a punt at fourth and 13.
With less than a minute left in the half, the Golden Eagles faced a fourth and 5 just past midfield. Hunter faked a hand-off and found himself undefended with a clear path to the end zone. Lancaster caught on and stopped him at the 2. Hunter pushed through, on two tries, for his second TD and a 26-14 lead.
With the steady rain and a two-score lead, the Golden Eagles played a more conservative offense in the second half, but there was nothing conservative about their defense. Despite two first downs by Lancaster, Lone Pine honed in on Daufen and Aguirre, limiting the drive to 27 yards and forcing a punt at fourth and 8.
Hunter took off on the first play of the drive with an entourage of blockers. Lancaster caught up with him at their own 26. Lancaster held the Golden Eagles to a 3-yard Palsrok run. At fourth and 7, Hunter completed a pass to Sullivan who lateraled to Muniz mid-tackle. Muniz kept going to Lancaster’s 5. Hunter gained three yards, then handed off to Galindo for Lone Pine’s final score and a 32-14 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Lancaster looked to make a comeback from Lone Pine’s 8-yard line. The Golden Eagles defense held Lancaster to a 6-yard gain on the first down. Aguirre fumbled the ball on the hand-off and Tom Peterson recovered it, giving Lone Pine possession on its own 2.
With 9:30 on the game clock and a solid lead, Riesen’s strategy was to protect the ball, eat up the clock and not make any mistakes. It worked. For a team and spectators used to a running fourth-quarter clock, this final nine minutes lasted a lifetime.
Palsrok was the go-to guy, dragging Lancaster’s defense along for short gains.
At 7:13, Lancaster’s offense had decent field position at their own 30. The Eagles’ only gain was on a pass interference penalty against Lone Pine. Lancaster went for a fourth down conversion at fourth and 10, but Lone Pine blitzed and got the turnover on downs. From that point on, with just over two minutes on the clock, the game was won.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Riesen, referring to the Golden Eagles’ 2-6 record in 2010, Riesen’s first year as coach. “We’ve had a remarkable season, we’re one of the top eight teams in the division, this win proves that. I’m incredibly proud of the team.” As for the contest against Excelsior, “we just have to do our best.”