TEHACHAPI -- This didn't turn into the fireworks show Garces High likes to put on, nor was it the most comfortable victory of all time.
But on the mountain, with a championship on the line, the Rams will take it any way they can get it.
And so a 21-7 victory over host Tehachapi will suffice for the Rams, who get a Southeast Yosemite League championship and likely the top seed in the Central Section Division II playoffs to go with it.
"It's always big to win a championship," Garces coach Jim Maples said. "Especially in Tehachapi, in Game 10, in the cold, we'll take it. The kids kept playing hard, and they deserve this."
Garces (9-1, 5-0 SEYL) moved the ball easily on their first two drives, but both ended in Cruise Adams interceptions -- one on an overthrow at the Tehachapi 21-yard line, the other on a freakish tipped ball that hung in the air for an eternity on the 18. The bad break was enough to get Maples wondering about mountain magic on the sideline.
"That was exactly my thought," he said. "It was, 'Here we go again, up in the mountain and crazy things happen.'"
But Garces, which switched to a spread offense this year from their traditional run-based wing-T, counteracted the early struggles by returning to a game predicated on defense and running. The Rams held Tehachapi (8-2, 4-1) to 67 yards in the first half and got a big night out of sophomore running back Sheldon Croney, who ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. The latter number was almost double his previous career high.
“They told me during practice this week that we might not be able to throw the ball as much in the cold and to be ready,” Croney said. “I was ready.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the Rams took the ball on their own 47 and went 53 yards in 11 plays — hardly the quick-strike offense they're accustomed to — and took the lead on Croney's 5-yard run six minutes before halftime.
Garces' biggest play was a 48-yard catch and run from Jake Sweaney down the sideline, a play that set up Croney's second TD. Tehachapi had a chance to carve into the lead before halftime, but a 14-play drive that was aided by two pass interference penalties ended when quarterback Bobby Howell was sacked on fourth-and-goal as the first-half clock expired.
“We had that opportunity right before half, and we couldn't score,” Warriors coach Steve Denman said. “Against a good team, that will come back to haunt you.”
Garces went up 21-0 late in the third quarter on a 1-yard Adams sneak and a two-point conversion pass to Sweaney, who finished with 105 yards on four receptions.
“We just had to keep fighting,” Croney said. “They were pretty tough, showed us some stuff we hadn't seen before and slowed us down, but we just had to keep playing through it.”
Tehachapi reached the red zone on its next drive but threw incomplete into the end zone on fourth down. The Warriors didn't score until Jorge Garcia, who finished with 79 yards rushing, scored with 45 seconds left in the game.
“The second half, we wanted to eat some clock,” Maples said. “Once we got that third touchdown, we know they're not a quick-strike team, and we wanted to shorten the game.”
For Tehachapi's part, the Warriors had only 190 yards of offense but muddied up the game by forcing three turnovers and stayed in it with three fourth-down conversions.
“That's how we wanted it,” Denman said. “The defense played exactly like we wanted, but our offense just struggled when we got in the red zone. But I'm proud of all of the guys. We had our shots; we just didn't take advantage.”
And that means Garces, which has lost only a 34-24 decision at Bakersfield High in Week 3, probably will be given the top seed in Division II when the Central Section determines playoff seedings today in Porterville.
“I do think we deserve the No. 1 seed with how we've done against the schedule we played,” Maples said. “Our seniors have had a great career here at Garces. They haven't lost a lot of games, and I think at this point they smell blood in the water.”
Note: At halftime, Tehachapi honored super-fan Terry Edwards, who was attending his 400th consecutive Warriors game, a streak that dates back to a game against Bishop on Halloween night in 1980. Edwards received a plaque commemorating his streak, and his son, Brian, a command sergeant major for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, flew in for the game.