ROCKLIN– A season filled with promise and championship aspirations ended with heartbreak on the Placer sideline Saturday night.
In the Division III CIF Sac-Joaquin Section championship game at Whitney High School, the top-ranked Capital Christian Cougars and the No. 2 Hillmen collided in a heavyweight bout in which the Cougars landed the last punch.
A Placer drive, with the game tied at 22 apiece and two minutes to play in the game, was halted by an interception by Cougars’ phenom D’Marcus Ross, who returned it over 30 yards to the Placer 12-yard line.
Kenyon Bower’s 27-yard field goal put Capital ahead 25-22 with under a minute to play – typically enough time for the Hillmen to make one last push to the end zone.
But Capital’s Damion Malott, Jr. came down with his third interception of the night to seal the victory and the D-III championship for head coach Casey Taylor and the Cougars.
“Placer is a great program. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done,” said Taylor, who coached down the road at Del Oro for 15 years. This marks Taylor’s seventh career section banner and the fourth for Capital Christian’s football program.
“It just comes down to a few plays,” Taylor continued. “It could have easily gone the other way. We knew it would be a 48-minute game. We talked about how it could come down to who could make a play on the last drive.”
Placer entered the fourth leading 22-14. The offensive line of Joey Capra, Blake Baughman, Austin Mader, Kyle Christensen, Colton McElroy and tight end Louis Fudge opened up big gaps for Hans Grassmann and Marshall Chapman, who each rushed for big gains with the third quarter winding down. Grassmann finished the drive with a 4-yard dive to put Placer up by eight heading into the final frame.
Each team fought from behind to take their leads, but turnovers and personal foul calls ultimately cost the Hillmen both possessions and position.
“We just couldn’t capitalize on multiple opportunities we had. We just couldn’t finish it,” said Placer head coach Joey Montoya. “I thought our defense did a phenomenal job tonight. They flew around and swarmed around… Our defense was lights out. I wish I had some calls back. I should have kicked a field goal earlier. Those are all the things I’m going to look in the mirror for and wish I could have back.”
Placer looked very Hillmen-like on its first drive of the game. A balanced attack of handoffs to Grassmann, Chapman and Brad Bishop paved the road for a rare touchdown run from Andrew Garza from a yard out to put the Hillmen up 7-0 in the first quarter.
Capital answered on the next drive with what could have been the play of the game after the Hillmen seemingly had the defensive stop. A designed, yet broken trick play saw the running back, Ross, catch a toss in the backfield and get chased down by a host of Hillmen. But Ross escaped pressure and hit quarterback Cooper Crick, who tiptoed down the sideline for a 31-yard score to tie the game at seven.
On Placer’s first drive of the second quarter, the Hillmen turned the ball over on downs by what seemed like half an inch. The Cougars capitalized on the ensuing drive with a 66-yard pass from Crick to Max Rodarte, nephew of Placer defensive coordinator Eric Rodarte, for a 14-7 Capital lead.
After Placer punted with 2:43 left in the half, the Hillmen got the ball back when Garza recovered a Capital fumble at the Cougar 35. The next play from scrimmage saw Placer quarterback Michael Stuck hit Cyrus O’Neal for a 35-yard score. But Zac Rohde’s extra point was blocked by Rodarte to keep the Cougars up 14-13 before halftime.
Placer took a 15-14 lead after Capital botched a punt attempt, where the snap sailed over the punter’s head and out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
Chandler Dakin and Chase Laguana-Scott each had a sack. McElroy and Garza each recovered fumbles, and Jorge Maldonado had an interception to lead the Placer defense. But Capital’s defense proved why the Cougars were 12-0 entering Saturday.
“The one big thing they did was try to bounce our off-tackle runs to the edge and force us to the sidelines. It’s something we hadn’t seen all year,” said Placer’s senior QB Stuck. “I didn’t execute when I needed to down the stretch.”
Despite four interceptions, Montoya was quick to praise his third-year quarterback.
“We’re not here without Michael Stuck,” he said. “He’s the pulse of the team. He’s a winner. He’s done a lot of winning for us. He’s been an absolute pleasure to coach.”
Placer ends its season at 12-1 with a Foothill Valley League championship to show for it, Placer’s seventh straight league title.
“It really starts in January,” said the University of Oregon-bound Capra. “It really shows you that hard work pays off. I’ll look back at this season as a success. It’s not a loss. I’ll look at it as a good, enjoyable time with all my friends.”
The bond amongst the Hillmen – the seniors, in particular – is undeniable. Perhaps more than football, this group will take away the friendships and brotherhood from a long journey.
“Those are guys that I’ll never lose touch with,” said Stuck of his teammates. “I don’t care how far we go.”