Under hard circumstances, top seed Nipomo defeated Visalia Mt. Whitney 34-7 at Nipomo Friday night in the first round of the CIF Central Section Division 4 Football Playoffs.
Before the game, a moment of silence was held in honor of Carly Krauk, 17, a recent Nipomo High School graduate who died earlier in the week in a house fire.
“Yeah,” two-way Nipomo senior stalwart Gabe Evans said somberly when he was asked if the game was an emotional one for the Titans in the wake of the death of the team’s former schoolmate. “Definitely.”
Nipomo do-it-all senior Nate Reese took a hard hit while returning the second half kickoff and did not return to the game.
Reese, the team’s starting quarterback and a stellar defensive back, punter, place kicker, kickoff man and return man, scored his team’s first two touchdowns as Nipomo took a 28-0 halftime lead. The Titans scored 21 points in the second quarter.
“It’s definitely his right shoulder,” Nipomo coach Tony Dodge said of the injury Reese suffered. “We won’t be able to find out how serious it is until someone looks at it, probably Monday.”
“With Nate out, we knew he wouldn’t be coming back in the game, so we knew the defense would have to come through and we did,” said Nipomo senior Leo Toledo who led the way as the Titans sacked Pioneers quarterback Alex Garza eight times.
Nipomo, 7-3, snapped a three-game losing skid. Ironically, the losing streak may have dropped the Titans to Division 4, in which Nipomo is the top seed, under the Central Section’s new playoff format, in which who is in what division wasn’t revealed until after the regular season. The Pioneers finished 2-7.
The first three Nipomo drives started at the Mt. Whitney 20, 35 and 27 respectively, and the Titans prospered, scoring all three times.
Kyle Kuhn and Cole Gilson blocked a punt after the Pioneers went three-plays-and-out on the first possession, and that set the Titans up at the Mt. Whitney 20. Reese scored on a five-yard run three plays later.
“That blocked punt set the tone for the rest of the game,” said Dodge.
A fumbled Mt. Whitney snap on fourth down from shotgun formation put the Titans at the Pioneers 35. On fourth and one from the 1, Reese scored on an end around to the wide side of the field on the first play of the second quarter.
The Titans sacked Garza on second down, a completed pass actually lost two yards back to the Mt. Whitney 9 and the Titans were in business again, at the 27, after a short punt. Vinny Hernandez barreled 17 yards for a score four plays later.
Gabe Sanchez made the second of four Nipomo interceptions - Evans had the first earlier in the quarter - and that put the Titans on the Pioneers 23. Evans scored from the 2 seven plays later.
The momentum shifted in a hurry after Reese got hurt. The Pioneers blocked a punt. The Titans had a hard time tackling Mt. Whitney wide receiver Chris Zavala in the first half. After the blocked punt, Zavala was finally rewarded when he caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Garza on third down.
The Titans offense salted the game away after the ensuing kickoff with a 69-yard touchdown drive that ate up more than six minutes. Evans scored from the 5.
With the big halftime lead, “We wanted to score one more and shut it down, and we did,” said Evans.
The Pioneers went backward on their first few running plays. After that, “They gave up on the run. We knew they had to throw,” said Toledo.
The Pioneers ground game showed some life as they drove to the Titans' 8 late in the game. Hernandez stopped that drive in the end zone with the last of the four Titans picks. Late in the third quarter, Alex Terrones intercepted a pass inside the Nipomo 1.
In place of Reese, Josh Cow-it gave the Titans some decent punting. And, “Jason Windham did a good job taking snaps at quarterback,” said Dodge. “Guys stepped up.”
Nipomo played for the first time since Oct. 23. “It was good seeing us play well after a layoff,” said Dodge. “The last few times after a layoff, we’ve laid an egg.”
Zavala had five catches and 105 yards in receptions. Evans was the leading rusher with 58.
Nipomo will host No. 8 Bakersfield Highland at 7 p.m. next Friday night in the quarterfinals. Highland (8-3) beat Porterville (4-6) 15-6 in the first round Friday.