Placer’s title quest falls short

The Hillmen battle back from a 28-0 halftime hole, but Graves, Wildcats hang on
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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FOLSOM — It took a court order to get Placer High into the playoffs. It took a flawless first half and another sensational night from Zack Graves to knock the Hillmen out. Placer’s remarkable run to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title game was cut short by a Whitney juggernaut. The Wildcats led 28-0 by the second quarter and held off a spirited second-half rally to win 35-14. Graves finished with 298 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries. Taylor Irwin returned a blocked field goal 73 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and added a 21-yard TD run to open the second quarter for the Wildcats, who finished 13-0 and are eligible for a CIF State Bowl game. “Our coaches came up with an awesome scheme and we just executed,” Irwin said of the first-half performance. “All season we just tried to take advantage of the other team’s mistake and execute when we have the ball.” The Hillmen (8-4), seeking the school’s sixth section title, rallied in the second half to make things interesting. Senior Seth Parrish gave Placer the momentum midway through the third quarter. He nearly had a safety after a huge tackle-for-loss deep in Whitney territory. Two plays later, Parrish pounced on a Graves fumble to give Placer its first prime scoring opportunity. Moments later, Matt Ross found Asher Gotzmer in the corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown pass as thousands of Placer fans went wild. Early in the fourth quarter, the Hillmen marched 58 yards to the Whitney 7-yard line, but Ryan Schermerhorn picked off Ross’ pass in the end zone. Placer’s hopes of a comeback win lived on midway through the fourth as a quick 54-yard drive ended with Ross’ quarterback sneak with just over five minutes left in the game. But Whitney recovered the ensuing onside kick and Graves bounced outside and went 50 yards for a touchdown on the next play to ice the game. The magic and momentum that Placer had come up with in stunning playoff wins at Oakdale and Dixon were hard to find on the chilly night in Folsom. “We expect great things to happen and when they don’t, that’s football and that’s life,” Placer coach Joey Montoya said. “You’ve just got to pick your head up and stay the course.” The Hillmen offense moved the ball well in the second half and the defense was much improved after Graves had rushed for 157 first-half yards. “Everyone in the locker room, just said, ‘Screw it. This is the last time we’re going to put on the pads, let’s just go out there and have some fun,;” Ross said. The game could have been a much different story were it not for a big special teams play early. The Hillmen lined up for a 40-yard field goal attempt to cap their opening drive. But Schermerhorn broke through and got a hand on the kick. It bounced right into Irvin’s arms and he cruised in for a touchdown to make it 14-0. Placer punted on its next two possessions, was stopped on fourth down by a half-inch and then fumbled the ball away in the final minute of the first half. “We were way too antsy in the first half,” Placer senior Jon Slane said. “They were a very good team. In the second half we just calmed down and had fun.” Gotzmer, who will be back next season as a senior, finished with 124 rushing yards on 17 carries to lead the Hillmen. Whitney beat Placer 34-12 on Nov. 14 at Le Febvre Stadium to cap a 6-0 run through the Pioneer Valley League. The Wildcats lost to Oakdale in last year’s section title game. “I was nervous facing Placer again because everyone said it’s always hard to beat a second time,” Irwin said. “I thought they’d have that edge on us. In the second half they really came back and they had our number. They knew how to stop what we were doing and they exploited what we’ve had trouble with all year and that’s the short passes. The Hillmen were just 3-7 in 2007 — Montoya’s first year as coach. Placer received word on Oct. 23 that it would have to forfeit three victories due to the use of an ineligible transfer player. Oakland judge Judith Ford reinstated the wins over Rosemont, Mesa Verde and El Dorado after a first-round playoff game between Oakdale and Colfax was called off. Placer replaced the Falcons in the playoffs as the third seed from the PVL and upset its way to the title game, drawing attention around the region for its dramatic plight. “We just wanted to create a legacy here,” Slane said. “And I think we did. We brought winning back here and we want it to keep going.”