By Patrick Cochran
Tied at 14-14 with twelve seconds left on the clock, Rams kicker Cristian Antezana had to kick a 41-yard field goal to win the Northern California Championships and advance to the state title game.
American River College, the only team to beat the Rams all season, had given them a tough game all afternoon. Winning the game now and not risking overtime was critical for the Rams.
The pressure on Antezana was immense, who earlier in the game missed his first two field goals. American River only heightened it with a timeout to “ice” Antezana. When the play resumed, the anxiety in the air was palatable.
The holder called hike and then promptly received the long snap. For a second, it looked like everything might go wrong, as the holder had to quickly readjust the ball, but he was able to get the ball in the proper spot before Antezana made contact and sent the ball sailing.
The kick was a line drive and looked like it might end up short of the goal post, but it didn’t. The referees signaled the touchdown was good and the Rams celebrated the 17-14 lead with just seconds remaining on the clock.
“On that last play, I had trust in my line, and I just had to go out there and do my job,” said Antezana. “They do 90% of the job, I am just a kicker. I just stand there and occasionally kick.”
From start to finish the game was back and forth with both teams playing top-notch defense.
“The defense was their best day,” said an ecstatic head coach George Rush after the game. “I really couldn’t ask any more out of them. With Tony out, they knew they would have to step up, and they did.”
Starting quarterback Anthony Rodriguez sat out of the game with an injury he sustained in his previous game versus Chabot, leaving Jerry Peralta to start.
Peralta lacks the size and pocket presence of Rodriguez, but is an excellent scrambler in the backfield. With the ability to turn broken plays into 20-yard runs, he seems like a poor-man’s Johnny Manziel.
Ten minutes into the first quarter and the Rams on their own 40-yard line, Peralta threw a beautiful 60-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Rodney Lawson.
Dropping back in the pocket, Peralta launched the ball downfield to Lawson, who was running a streak route.
The ball momentarily looked like it would sail past the receiver, but Lawson was able to catch up the ball and haul it. The defender, already trailing behind Lawson, made one last ditch effort to prevent the touchdown, but it wasn’t enough. Lawson avoided being brought down and took the ball all the way to the end zone, giving the Rams the early 7-0 lead.
Early in the second quarter, American River tied the game at 7-7 after their own big passing play. Quarterback Tanner Troslin threw a 37-yard strike to receiver Tyler Young.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Rams began the fourth quarter with a long, physical drive, that looked like it would wear down American River.
Within striking distance of taking a 14-7 lead, the Rams handed the ball off to running back Jahray Hayes. Hayes, who has been instrumental to the Rams success all season, ran hard into the defensive line.
Lurching forward while surrounded by a plethora of defenders, Hayes was already on his way down to the ground when defensive lineman Viliami Umufuke stripped the ball out of Hayes’ hands. The ball rolled on the ground backwards until cornerback Damion Sanders scooped the rock and ran 90 yards unopposed to the endzone, giving American River a 14-7 lead.
“I thought it was forward progress, and that Jahray was down,” said Rush. “I don’t think the ref could even tell, but he called it a fumble, so that’s what happened.”
Down but not out, the Rams responded the next drive by going 70 yards in 11 plays to score a touchdown and tie the game up.
Capped off by a six-yard touchdown pass from Peralta to receiver Maurice McSwain, Peralta showed off his leadership and toughness on the drive.
Peralta, who threw 268 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 48 yards, at one point on the drive scrambled to get his team the first down.
At the end of the play, Peralta gained the immense respect of everyone in the stadium when he quickly bounced back up on a hit that would leave many quarterbacks rolling on the ground in pain. Firing up the home crowd, Peralta signaled he wanted more and for the defense to bring it.
“I am kind of a small guy,” said Peralta. “So it’s not hard to rough me up.”
Peralta, who stands at only 5’9, which is short for a quarterback, had some trouble of getting his passes off over the much taller opposing defensive lineman. Multiple times, his passes were swatted down, but Peralta didn’t let that phase him.
“My offensive line worked hard to make it easier for me,” said Peralta.
Peralta proved to his teammates that he is more than capable of leading them to the state championship next Saturday if Rodriguez is unable to suit up.
“Jerry Bear got heart,” said cornerback Uriah Harris. “Player of the game, number fourteen baby!”