Freed from the Southwest Yosemite League and its slew of top-notch opponents, Independence showed Friday night at Golden Valley that it's a threat in the Central Section Division III playoffs.
The ninth-seeded Falcons, who went winless in the SWYL against all Division I opponents, beat the No. 8 Bulldogs 35-14 behind a punishing defense, a big-play running game and four forced turnovers.
"Sometimes the end scores in the league didn't show how we played," junior running back Jalen Summerville said. "We just wanted to come out and show that we're actually a good team."
Summerville landed one of the first big blows for the Falcons (5-6), bursting 86 yards up the gut of the Golden Valley defense for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead on the third play of the second quarter.
"I just saw a wide-open hole," said Summerville, who finished with 150 yards and two rushing touchdowns. "My linemen made that one. I got a chance to use my speed."
Independence controlled the line of scrimmage all night, blitzing Golden Valley quarterback Tyler Waters repeatedly and holding 1,000-yard rusher Andrew Dean to just 41 yards on 11 carries.
"Our offense played good, but it was our defense that won this game for us," Summerville said. "I've got to give it up for the defense."
D.J. Reed, who also caught eight passes for 68 yards on offense, made two interceptions for Independence, including one in the end zone that snuffed out a first-half drive for Golden Valley (5-6). Two Bulldogs' possessions later, Waters pitched the ball on an option inside his 5-yard line -- but there was no running back to take it. It fell to the turf, where Independence linebacker Sergio Wright fell on it at the goal line for a touchdown and a 20-0 lead.
"This is the best we've played on defense in six weeks," Falcons coach Sean McKeown said. "Then again, we've been playing some pretty good teams for six weeks."
The Falcons' closest game in the SWYL was a 28-6 loss to Centennial in Week 9; now the Falcons can ride some momentum on the road, where they'll face top-seeded Tulare Western in a Division III quarterfinal on Thursday.
"It was important for us to come out fast tonight and develop a little bit of confidence," McKeown said. "We got a little complacent in the second quarter, but we I thought we came out well in the second half. We were a little more detail-oriented."
Golden Valley cut the lead to 20-7 in the final minute of the first half on Waters' 13-yard touchdown pass to Jessie Hodges. The Bulldogs got the ball back in the third quarter, but Waters lost a fumble.
On the next play, Independence quarterback Jordan Wiley hit a streaking Chris Ellis for a 50-yard touchdown. Wiley finished 18-of-27 passing for 190 yards.
"They were just more athletic, and their speed got us in certain situations," Golden Valley coach Erich Smith said.
Waters, who finished with 114 passing yards and 52 rushing yards, answered the Ellis touchdown with a 36-yard score on a scramble to cut the lead to 26-14. The Bulldogs twice got the ball with a chance to cut into the lead further but didn't move the ball past midfield either time.
"I thought our defense played great, believe it or not," Smith said. "But our offense had a tremendous amount of chances and we couldn't take advantage. I'm the offensive coordinator, so that's on me. I thought we could throw the ball, and we didn't complete enough of them."
And so Independence, which started the year 4-1, appears to have survived the SWYL -- which it is leaving next season. Now the Falcons are ready for another run in Division III.
"We battled during league," McKeown said. "It's hard for me to say how well that prepared us, but I really don't think our record indicated how well we have played."