Placer thwarts last-second Center pass to reach the section football finals with 17-14 triumph at LeFebvre Stadium

By: Ike Dodson of the Auburn Journal
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It took last-second heroics at LeFebvre Staduim Friday and a dramatic reversal of fortune after a 1-4 start to the season, but the sophomore-laden Placer Hillmen football team is playing for a section championship.

Hillmen safety Johhny Callahan tipped Edmond JBeily’s pass as it floated into the end zone as time expired, and 5-foot, 9-inch, 150-pound defensive back Aidan Barnhart popped Center’s hulking wide out, Louie Bonds (6-4, 235), as the ball arrived.

The ball caromed off Bonds’ shoulder pads and into the grass, allowing Placer’s bench to rush the field and celebrate a 17-14 victory in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinals.

Placer (7-5) will be huge underdogs next week against state power Manteca (11-1) of the vaunted Valley Oak League, but anything can happen in an SJS final.

That game is set for 6 p.m. Nov. 26 at Lincoln of Stockton. Top seed Manteca beat No. 4 Los Banos 52-0 Friday in the other D4 semifinal. The Buffaloes are ranked No. 21 in Northern California (all divisions) by

“That’s a true David vs. Goliath matchup and clearly they are the No. 1 seed for a reason,” Placer coach Joey Montoya said. “We are going to enjoy this tonight and focus on Manteca with the week to come.”

Placer has plenty to celebrate, starting with the spectacular defensive play of a Hillmen group that allowed only 190 Cougar yards to Placer’s 295.

Coach Eric Rodarte’s unit didn’t get burned by the big play and protected the end zone masterfully on Center’s 13-play drive to end the game.

After a gorgeous 48-yard punt by Josh Jacoby pinned Center at its own 19 yard-line, the Cougars drove to Placer 15 with 10 seconds to play, and halved the distance on a Hillmen pass interference call.

Cougars coach Digol JBeily made a gutsy call to target the end zone with six seconds remaining, while easily within kicking range — and he doubled-down on that call moments later when the pass went incomplete.

Placer got the tip, the hit and the win, nearly duplicating a 16-15 thriller in Hillmen favor Oct. 14.

“It was a roller coaster,” Montoya said. “Two nail-biters with these guys. Clearly they are a great football team.”

Montoya said he wasn’t surprise by the Cougar call to throw instead of kick with one second to play.

“Coach DBeily is a guy who has the guts to go for stuff like that,” Montoya said. “People might question that call, but he’s on the road in a hostile environment and has some great receivers that go up and get the football.

“Fortunately our guys made the play.”

Placer was only in position to defend the lead because of some bull-headed running by Morgan “Meatball” Rein-Robinson. While the rest of Placer’s offense struggled, Rein-Robinson ran 15 times for 94 yards.

He busted loose for a big first down to set up Michael Stuck’s 17-yard touchdown pass to wide open Carter Benz in the second quarter. When Center took a 14-10 lead on the opening drive of the second half, “Meatball” powered through would-be tackles to nab 34 yards on four touches during Placer’s game-winning drive six minutes later. He closed the series with a nine-yard score.

Rein-Robinson and Guillermo Morfin also combined for three sacks on defense.

“I’m proud of (Rein-Robinson), proud of this team, proud of our coaches and Coach Rodarte got the defense to play lights out tonight,” Montoya said. “The kids executed like champs.”

Placer also got a huge performance from kicker Blake Van Dyke, who kicked the game-winner against Center the first time around. He converted both extra points Friday and booted the difference-making field goal (36 yards) in the first quarter after an early Center touchdown by Robbie Donnell (84 yards rushing).

Blake's mom, Laura Friston-Van Dyke, enjoyed a big moment in the stands as well. During halftime, the Placer cheerleaders stopped to point out her boyfriend, Mike Harris, who made a dramatic diamond-wielding proposal.

She said yes.