In a game filled with star players and speed, it was two big guys who played the role of unsung hero, leading Garces to a 41-26 road victory over Stockdale on Friday night.
Linebacker Allen Eschete and defensive tackle David Grimm each intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown for the Rams (3-2), with Grimm's pick-six essentially sealing victory with 3:42 remaining.
"Those kind of guys, those big guys, they get down and dirty on every play," Garces coach Jim Maples said. "For them to get a play like that, that's a lineman's dream."
And lightning struck twice for Garces. In the first half, Eschete picked off Stockdale quarterback Drew Allen and returned 44 yards for a touchdown that gave the Rams a 14-6 first-quarter lead. The teams battled evenly from there in a game that featured five lead changes and didn't end until Grimm pulled the same trick in the fourth quarter.
On that play, Jake Stuart hit Allen as he threw, popping the ball up in the air. Grimm was there to capitalize and rumble 35 yards to a touchdown and victory.
"It was amazing," said running back Sheldon Croney, who had 203 total yards and two touchdowns. "The defense played really well. I honestly think they won this game for us."
Croney had 140 rushing yards and 63 receiving yards, and quarterback Jake Pavletich threw for 153 yards for Garces, which proved it can win even when Croney isn't doing all of the heavy lifting.
"We have a lot of weapons on this team," Croney said. "If you take something away, we're going to come at you with something else. We're really hard to stop."
Same goes for Stockdale (1-3), at least when the Mustangs weren't turning the ball over. Stockdale ran for 209 yards; Adarius Rowel led the way with 135 yards, Anthony Wood had 49 and Xavier Chisholm 34. All three scored a rushing touchdown, and Chisholm added a 14-yard TD catch.
"Boy, Wood and Rowel and Chisholm, those three guys can really run the ball," Maples said. "We knew we had to play them tough."
And after Stockdale gashed Garces for 240 first-half yards, Rowel busted a 60-yard touchdown run to give the Mustangs a 26-21 lead early in the third quarter. From that point, however, Garces held Stockdale to just 4 yards on 12 plays, and the Mustangs' only other first down came via penalty.
"We've got to get better up front, on offense and defense," Stockdale coach Mike Snow said. "The game is won and lost in the trenches, and we weren't good enough."
Still, Stockdale had a chance, down 34-26 with 4:19 left, to tie the game. That's when Allen dropped back, Stuart hit him and Garces' defense made another huge play.
"We lost by (15), and the other team scored 14 points on defense, so that's part of it," Snow said. "We made plays and kept coming back, but then we'd give up a big play. Mistakes are cumulative, and this is what happens."
Stockdale will play at winless Clovis-Buchanan next week before beginning Southwest Yosemite League play with Centennial. Garces, meanwhile, finished non-league play with a Holy Bowl victory at Fresno-San Joaquin Memorial last Saturday and this win six days later; the Rams have a bye next week before entering Southeast Yosemite League play.
"I said it early that this team was gonna take time, but the seniors have really stepped it up," Maples said. "We feel good about ourselves at this point. We were 1-2, but we've gone out and beat two really good football teams."