TULARE — Stockdale football coach Brett Shelton did all he could to hold back tears as he reflected about the gutsy performance of his quarterback.
Evan Burkhart, who threw four interceptions earlier, took the entire Tulare Western defense for a ride on a third-and-long run and then found his favorite target in Jeremiah Gradowitz for a 17-yard pass.
Those two plays quieted the home crowd as No. 7 Stockdale upset No. 2 Tulare Western 16-15 in the Central Section Division II quarterfinals on Thursday at Bob Mathias Stadium in Tulare.
“You want to talk about character and handling adversity well, man, what an incredible human being to put it aside and do just that,” Shelton said about Burkhart’s play on the final drive of the game. “He got touched probably four-yards short on that first down and he just kept pounding and pounding. What a great effort.”
Just as remarkable was the effort by the Stockdale defense.
Tulare Western came into the quarterfinals off a bye week and was undefeated up until two weeks ago in a loss to in-town rival Tulare Union in the regular season finale.
Junior running back Tairyn Johnson has been one of the most productive runners in the section and did rush for 169 yards on 20 carries, but the Stockdale (7-5) defense shut out Tulare Western in the second half.
“I am just so proud of these guys for sticking through a lot of adversity throughout the year,” Shelton said. “They could have hung their heads after the first series because they moved the ball on us pretty easily. But we just started bonding together.”
Tulare Western needed just six plays and took 1 minute, 57 seconds off the clock on the opening drive that ended in a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Elijah Burrell.
Stockdale responded on the ensuing drive that ended with a 25-yard field goal by Duane Hartman.
Burkhart scored on a 7-yard keeper as Stockdale took a 9-7 lead.
But Tulare Western capitalized on the first of two interceptions by Anthony Cervantes, scoring on a 5-yard run by Johnson to take a 15-9 lead into the half.
There was not an offensive touchdown in the second half.
The only score, the go-ahead touchdown for Stockdale was a fumble recovery by Elijah Hudson in the end zone with 4:59 to play in the third quarter.
“You’ve got to love those guys,” Shelton said. “It was bend don’t break and they didn’t … God dang it, that’s a great win for these guys.”
After starting the season 0-2 before moving Burkhart to quarterback, Stockdale is in the semifinals for the first time since the Mustangs went 12-1 in 2004.
“This is everything” Burkhart said. “It makes a good ending. Football is a team sport. One person can’t do everything.”
Burkhart threw for 199 yards and ran for another 105 while completing six pass for 149 yards to Gradowitz. None bigger than the final throw that set up the victory formation.
“I can’t even explain how it felt,” Gradowitz said of the final catch. “It felt so good. My team secured this win. No words. It feels so good.”
Maison Wright had an interception for Stockdale in the second half and Michael Gadaldon had a sack to stall a Tulare Western drive late in the first quarter.
Stockdale will play the winner of No. 11 Frontier at No. 3 Santa Maria-Righetti.