North High coach Norm Brown tried to outrun his player from the ice bath, but there was no stopping the determination of a group of players that just clinched a share of a league title for just the third time in 33 years and halted a perfect season for the opponent.
North beat previously undefeated Highland 21-14 at home on Friday as the Stars handed Highland the Scots’ first loss of the season and clinched a three-way tie for the Southeast Yosemite League title with South.
“Nobody counted us in. They all counted us out,” Brown said. “The only ones that counted us in were ourselves, each other. There are only two reasons we won tonight. Because we love football. We love the game of football and you know what? We love each other. How much more can you ask for?”
Highland (8-1, 3-1) was seeking the program’s first league title of any kind and the first undefeated regular season in Kern County since 2012 when Wasco finished the season 13-0.
The Stars (7-3, 3-1) sought a share of the program’s first league title in nine years and just the third since 1983.
“It’s hard to win a league championship,” Brown said.
Brown went big on the first offensive play of the game for the Stars as Bailey West rolled out to his right and found a sprinting James Johnson who took the pass 94 yards for the opening touchdown.
Johnson also sacked Highland quarterback Cade Sakamoto as Highland had fourth-and-goal at the 10 with one minute left in the fourth quarter.
“He was outstanding,” Brown said of Johnson. “The whole defense was incredible. It’s week in and week out. It’s 11 black shirts to the ball. That’s what we’ve been preaching and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it.”
Johnson was the first player to embrace Brown after the final whistle blew, engaging his head coach with a long hug.
“We’ve been through a lot this season, me and coach Brown and this whole team,” Johnson said. “We’ve been fighting obstacles every week and it’s amazing.”
North extended the lead to 15-0 in the first quarter when Connor Whitbey intercepted a Sakamoto pass, setting up a six-lay drive capped by West scoring from the 1-yard line on the quarterback keeper.
Highland was held to just 72 total yards on offense in the first half, the first time the Scots have been held scoreless before halftime all season.
But the Scots responded in the second half.
Cade Johnson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to get Highland on the board before North responded on the ensuing drive capped by a 2-yard run by Chris Romero.
Romero had 168 rushing yards on 25 carries.
But Highland wasn’t ready to go away.
Sakamoto, backed to his own goal line, found Noah Ramirez for an 88-yard touchdown strike early in the fourth quarter and capitalized on a Stars fumble minutes later to get into the red zone before Johnson’s sack ended the late rally for Highland.
“We didn’t start off the game well and North did a great job ready to come out and play,” Highland coach Michael Gutierrez said. “We wished we would have started better. Our guys did a great job of fighting to the very end. It’s unfortunate but now we need to recover and get ready for the playoffs.”