Returning to the playoffs was something that the Liberty Ranch Hawks had had as a goal and, thanks to the closest Dairy Bowl win in years over their rival Galt, this week Liberty Ranch will be playing in its first playoff game since 2016.
The Hawks defeated the Warriors 35-28 in a game in which they had a comfortable lead at times but fell into treacherous territory at various parts of the second half as well, in the end stopping a late possession to close out the win.
The result? Their ninth consecutive win over their rival in the Dairy Bowl.
“It feels great, I mean it’s the first time in three or four years that we made it, it’s just a great feeling, all the hard work finally pays off,” Hawk quarterback Aidan Carr said afterward.
The first quarter belonged to the Warriors, as the Hawks experienced first an interception by Galt and then a fumble that was recovered also by Galt.
Marcelo Lopez intercepted a pass at the Hawks’ 37-yard line one minute into the game, but the Warriors’ chance to score first was thwarted even after they reached the Hawks’ 15-yard line.
After an incomplete pass in the Hawks’ end zone, the Warriors turned the ball over on downs.
The Warriors’ Luis Suarez recovered a Hawk fumble with 8:13 left at their own 33-yard line and, this time, they were able to make the most of their possession.
Kenny Tran would score on a 32-yard run 10 seconds later, and Ethan Reece kicked the PAT to take a 7-0 lead.
The Hawks’ defense and offense both came to life after that play, however, with the Hawks recovering from a stripped ball by Lopez and intercepting a Robert Bulahan Jr. pass with 6:12 left.
On a separate possession in the second quarter, Isiah Ricci scored on a short run and the Hawks’ Damion Ochoa tied the score at 7-7.
The Hawks forced the Warriors to punt and Jordan Besabe later scored on a short run before the Warriors punted yet again.
The Hawks continued their offensive streak as Carr scored on a short run with 1:13 left to take a 21-7 lead.
“We just made some mistakes that just dogged us. We’re really pleased to be a part of the postseason. We wanted and needed to get this program back into the playoffs. Guys are excited but, credit Galt, they played well. They took advantage of our mistakes and we did enough. I think it’s kind of appropriate because the defense has been very consistent, not perfect but consistent, and I think it was appropriate that the defense came up big when we needed them to do so at different times today,” Hawk coach Anthony Linebaugh said.
The Warriors got back on track when Zach Cirac scored on a five-yard run with 11 seconds left in the second quarter to end the half down 21-14.
Both teams would score in the third quarter, the Hawks on a touchdown reception by Cameron Hopkins-Senegal on a pass by Carr with 8:28 left, while the Warriors scored on a touchdown pass from Bulahan Jr. to Lopez with 4:04 left.
The game seemed firmly in place by the start of the fourth quarter when Carr scored on a three-yard run for a 35-21 lead.
The Warriors made a run, however, that would not result in a touchdown and another possession in the final minutes.
David Vitoria recovered a Hawk fumble with 5:44 on the Warriors’ own 33-yard line; that possession ended in an eventual seven-yard Isaac Madrigal touchdown reception on a pass from Bulahan Jr. with 2:44 left.
While the Warriors kicked an onside kick and ended up taking possession of the kick, the Hawks’ defense stopped the ball to end the attack.
“The first quarter we were down by seven so we definitely got off to a rough start but we just put it behind us and finished the game strong,” Carr said.
“They played well. We were pleased with our ability to make plays when we needed to make plays,” Linebaugh said.
The Hawks finished the Sierra Valley Conference season with a 2-3 record and a 5-5 overall record, while the Warriors finished 0-5 and 4-6 overall.
“We came here with nothing to lose and had just one thing on our mind – just win, and we knew this team was beatable, it was winnable,” Lopez said.
“We just knew it was going to be a close one. We knew those kids and we knew it was going to be a battle from the start,” Bulahan Jr. added.
The season is over for the Warriors, but not before their closest contest against the Hawks since 2016, when they lost by 11 points to Liberty Ranch.
“I think just a couple of bad mistakes up there up front on the blocking and what not, and we missed one or two and the drive stalled out a little bit but it was okay, I think we were still in a good positioning right there and we came back out with the next possession. It was the next possession we got the next touchdown,” Galt coach Tim Cobleigh said. “We got some turnovers, we got some breaks, we took advantage of some, we didn’t take advantage of all of them but the kids worked really hard to keep fighting in this game.”
The Hawks, who earned the seventh seed in the DV bracket, will now host Foothill, who is the 10th seed.
The Mustangs finished the Pioneer Valley League with a 3-2 record and are 7-3 overall headed into the Nov. 8 matchup.