MANTECA – Season-ending tears come with the territory in the postseason, and the East Union High Lancers cried a bucketload of them Friday night.
Not every team invests a lot of emotion in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. That wasn’t the case with the Lancers, who were gut-punched 33-28 by Nevada Union of Grass Valley on Friday night at Dino Cunial Field.
“The guys worked hard all year,” said senior Dylan Lee, East Union’s do-everything star whose three-star status at linebacker indicates a bright future. But after this night, he barely could mumble a few words.
“It was a struggle, but we never gave up,” he managed. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Second-year coach Mike Kuhnlenz is braced for a difficult task as he tries to claw his program into the upper half of the thankless Valley Oak League. A second straight first-round win in the Division IV bracket would have signified a step.
Thus motivated, the Lancers greeted Nevada Union with a 14-0 hello not long after the Miners exited the bus. East Union led most of the game.
But the Lancers (4-7), the No. 6 seed, fell behind 33-28 in the fourth quarter. Two promising drives were denied via interceptions by Nevada Union safety Andrew Webster.
The first happened at the Miners’ 12-yard line on a deflection of a deep throw from freshman Kirk Simoni to Lee. The second was the one both teams will remember.
East Union, aided by Nevada Union penalties, marched from its own 5 and had a first down at the NU 25 with about two minutes left. Lee, who rotated with Simoni at quarterback, then took a shot down the middle to over-achieving 132-pound receiver Anthony Avelar.
Webster, deep in the end zone, bodied Avelar off the ball for the decisive pick. Nevada Union (5-6) pounded for a first down, ran out the clock and celebrated like a team that was 2-6 only a few weeks ago.
“This one is going to sting for a little bit,” said Kuhnlenz, whose team was shut out in the second half. “I’m super super bummed out for my kids.”
Webster’s interceptions were the game’s only turnovers. He also came up big on offense. Maddox Graves’ looping 35-yard pass found Webster in stride in the end zone for Nevada Union’s first lead with 10:18 left.
Graves, a 6-foor-4 senior, guided Nevada Union’s comeback by throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for two. He passed for 205 yards, many to receiver Brett Cota (6 reception for 116 yards, 61-yard TD) and rushed for 50.
The go-ahead pass, however, illustrated the game’s trend. East Union outgained Nevada Union 396-276, but the Miners answered the Lancers’ 219 rushing yards with a slew of explosive plays.
The biggest came on defense. East Union, leading 28-20 during the third quarter, turned back Nevada Union on downs at the EU 7. But everything changed moments later when onrushing NU defensive end Clay Renner deflected Simoni’s pass to himself and stepped 30 yards for the pick-6. The Miners, seeded 11th, missed the game-tying deuce but they had overcome their slow start.
“Mr. Mo (momentum) went on our side after that,” Nevada Union coach Brad Sparks said.
East Union led 14-0 before Nevada Union picked up a first down. Simoni, poised in only his second varsity appearance, completed nine of his first 12 passes and David Flores (16 carries, 118 yards) scored both first-quarter touchdowns. Flores persevered despite a season-long knee injury and an ankle twist that occurred during the first half.
The Lancers also got a lift from running back Emilio Perez Jr. who scored two touchdowns. His second was a scrum-like blast from the 1 as time expired in the first half, and Lee pounded home for his second conversion to give East Union the 28-20 lead.
Trouble was, Nevada Union gathered itself with a 20-point second quarter. The Miners also somehow dodged eight encroachment penalties that fueled the East Union offense.
Nevada Union gets another week to fix that. The Miners have earned a rematch against Foothill Valley League runner-up and No. 3 seed West Park of Roseville, which defeated Nevada Union 36-6 on Oct. 7.
For the Lancers, it was a good effort, but a chance missed.
“Take this and learn from it,” Kuhnlenz summarized.