Vista eager to prove they belong in same sentence with Oakdale

By: Matt Long, Sports Editor
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Chris Jones came to Vista del Lago in 2007 with a goal in mind: build a football program that’s competitive and among the best year in and year out.

His program at Vista del Lago has steadily improved from 2-8 in its first varsity season in 2008 to their first playoff win a year ago before being bounced from the playoffs by Oakdale.

Following that convincingly 49-7 loss, Jones said Oakdale is the type of program he wants to create at Vista, a team that is perennially competing for a section title. The Eagles now get another shot at Oakdale, but this time it’s for a Division III championship game. Vista will be looking to avenge last year’s loss and to win its first section title, while the Mustangs also have motivation, having lost last year’s title game to Del Oro.

“We’re in uncharted waters, but we’ve put a ton of time in to be here,” Jones said. “We wanted to play in the championship game and now we’re going to find out if we’re ready to be talked about in the same sentence as Oakdale.”

Oakdale, the top-seed in the playoffs, enters the game with a 12-1 record, the same record as the Eagles. Reaching the game, which is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Lincoln High School in Stockton, was a huge accomplishment for the Eagles.

“It feels great to reach the championship game,” Vista running back Josh Pfeffer said. “It’s a new experience for me and for the program so I’m very excited about it. Oakdale is a phenomenal program and is a very solid team. We’re going to work out tails off this week to prepare for them.”

Pfeffer’s sentiment was echoed by his teammates.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Vista defensive end Chris Grunsky said. “It’s great to get another shot at Oakdale. We’ve got a new team this year. We believe we can stop the Wing-T because we’ve seen it so many times this year.”

Vista safety Andrew Schantz said, “We’re going to work hard this week to get ready for Oakdale. It’s a big game.”

Oakdale didn’t just beat Vista last season, it destroyed them. The Eagles, however, feel they are an improved team this year. One thing is certain, though.

 “We’re going to have to play our best football,” Jones said. “The good thing about that is I still feel that’s in front of us. I tell these guys all the time that the best times I’ve coached, the section championship teams at Oak Ridge, they got better each week and were playing their best football 13 weeks into the season. That’s my challenge to the guys.”

Jones is thrilled to have reached the championship game; something he dreamed about when he decided to leave Oak Ridge and start a new program at Vista in 2007.

“This is what myself and my coaching staff is in it for,” Jones said. “To win it would finish the deal.”

Vista 28, Inderkum 21

It was a game full of big plays and key moments and it’s a game Vista del Lago’s football team and fans will never forget.

Saturday night at Prairie City Stadium, Vista del Lago defeated Inderkum in thrilling fashion, 28-21, to advance to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game.

After a bland first half of football, the second half of the game featured several key defensive plays, a big moment for the special teams and some hard running from Pfeffer, who capped the victory with a five-yard touchdown run with 22 seconds remaining in the game. The Eagle defense held Inderkum to minimal yardage on the game’s final three plays, sending the Eagles and some of their student body pouring onto the field.

After the game, Schantz, who had a key interception and made perhaps the biggest play of the game on special teams, was so excited he could hardly think straight.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Schantz said. “To make it to the section championship game in my first year starting at safety on the varsity squad is exhilarating.”

Trailing 14-10 late in the third quarter, Vista del Lago needed a spark and Schantz gave it to them with an interception deep in Inderkum territory, which gave the Eagles the shot in the arm they needed.

With the ball at the Inderkum 16, it took Vista only three plays to score with quarterback Matt Jimison finding receiver Brad Rittenhouse for an 11-yard touchdown. Rittenhouse was rocked hard after catching the ball, but held onto it for the six points. Anderz Mintz’ extra point put the Eagles in front 17-14 after three quarters of play and momentum stayed on their side for most of the fourth.

On Inderkum’s next possession, the Tigers were sitting pretty at the Vista 47-yard line facing a second-and-four play. Inderkum chose to pass and Grunsky came up with a sack for a 10-yard loss, which put the Tigers in a hole.  Two plays later on fourth-and-one from the Vista 44, the Tigers tried a running play and Grunsky filled the hole and stuffed running back Brandon Powell for a two-yard loss with a pad-cracking hit.

“It felt great to make that hit and stop them on fourth and inches,” Grunsky said. “I got in untouched and made the play.”

Vista’s offense turned Grunsky’s stop into three points when Mintz connected from 29 yards to extend the Eagles’ lead to 20-14 with 8:57 to play.

Punter Evan Ewey had a great fourth quarter, twice punting the ball inside the Inderkum six-yard line, making things a bit more difficult for the Tiger offense.

The hometown crowd also helped the Eagles out, as they helped force consecutive illegal procedure and delay-of-game penalties during one drive.

With all the momentum on Vista’s side, Inderkum quickly made everyone realize it was only a play away from taking the lead. On second-and-six from his own 21-yard line, quarterback C.J. Spencer threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to Larry Hardy, who after catching the pass out-ran several Vista defenders 60-some yards to the end zone. The extra point put Inderkum in front 21-20 with only 2:03 to play.

Needing another shot in the arm, the Eagles got it once again from Schantz, who found a hole in the Tigers’ kickoff coverage and returned the crucial kickoff to Inderkum 36-yard line, which made things a lot easy for the Vista offense, which struggled for the majority of the night.

“If not for the other guys blocking, I never could have done it,” said Schantz.

On the final drive, however, the Eagles didn’t try to be too fancy, just safe and efficient and it worked. After a key 14-yard completion on third-and-nine from Jimison to Rittenhouse, the Eagle offensive line and Pfeffer took over.

Pfeffer carried the ball three straight times, picking up nine yards and then six, before taking the ball in the end zone on a five-yard run to give the Eagles the lead for good. Jimison then hooked up with Rittenhouse for the two-point conversion.

“It was an up-and-down game,” Pfeffer said. “Inderkum has a high-powered offense and the team credit goes to the defense in this one. They had a great performance. The offense got it together and we were able to run the ball. The line did a good job blocking.”

Jones was also excited with the win.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Jones said. “All the work we’ve put in to get to this point, it’s great to have made it this far, but we’re not done.”