Winless seven weeks into the season and sitting at 0-6 following a loss to Bakersfield Christian in its league opener, the Independence football team didn’t figure to even be playing in the month of November, much less Thanksgiving week.
Any talks of a playoff run seemed to be a stretch. And winning a section title? Forget about it.
But somewhere along the way, the Falcons turned things around, and eventually accomplished what was unthinkable just two months ago.
Independence completed the first stage of it's unlikely turnaround on Friday night, holding off visiting Mendota 28-21 for its eighth-straight victory, and securing the Central Section Division IV championship in the process, the first in the school’s 13-year history.
“I’m extremely proud of these boys for the way they’ve battled all season, just the resiliency,” said fourth-year Falcons coach Tyler Schilhabel, whose team was slowed early in the year when practice was halted just before the season opener due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. “This game was the epitome of our season. Get down early, have some bad things happen and then come back in the second half. We were a second-half team all season and it showed with our record and (winning) eight straight.”
Independence (8-6) will now continue its season next week in the state playoffs. Regional Bowl matchups are scheduled to be announced Sunday.
“We just never overlooked our opponents and we took it one week at a time,” Falcons senior quarterback Ladon Denmark said. “Our coaches put that in our head, we took it and we ran with it. We started clicking once all our heads got into the right place. Our team started playing as a team because football is a team sport. We all came together and kept our composure and did what we had to do, and we just came out on top.”
After closing South Yosemite League play with four victories, No. 6 Independence cruised past Fowler, Porterville-Monache and Fresno-Roosevelt, scoring more than 40 points in six straight games during the streak.
On a night of big plays, Independence made the most down the stretch on Friday night.
Leading by a touchdown, and with the Aztecs (8-4) moving the ball into Falcons’ territory, Independence senior Evan Peaker won a battle with Mendota receiver Jacob Silva and made a leaping interception at the 5-yard line to all-but clinch the victory for his team with 2:53 to play.
Peaker made a habit of being in the right place at the right time on Friday.
In addition to the interception, Peaker forced a fumble to stall another Aztec drive early in the fourth quarter, and was equally as impressive on offense and special teams.
Peaker rushed for a game-high 133 yards on 25 carries, but it was his 83-yard kickoff return in the second quarter that shifted the game’s momentum.
Mendota capitalized on an interception by Denmark late in the first half and took a 21-14 lead when Devon Murphy took a short pass and beat the Independence defense to the pylon for a 13-yard score with 42.2 second left in the first half.
But Peaker took the ensuing kickoff, made a move toward the left sideline and then cut back to the center of the field en route to the end zone to tie the game again just 14 second later.
“We just needed plays and just felt like I had to do something to help us win,” Peaker said. “It feels great. I can’t explain how I’m feeling right now, I’m speechless right now.”
Independence’s winning touchdown was only the score of the second half, as the result of a 20-play 72-yard drive that was capped by a 5-yard touchdown run by Denmark on fourth-and-goal. He finished with 74 yards rushing on 15 carries and was also 3 of 8 passing for 71 yards.
“We worked too hard for this season, we were 0-6, and we just worked too hard to lose. Way too hard,” Peaker said. “It feels great, it feels very nice. We love it, we love it.
“We had a little doubt when we were 0-6, but we turned it up after the BCHS game, and saw what our offense could do. We made some changes and got people in the right spots and we just turned it up from there.”
Turnovers played a big role in the outcome of Friday’s game.
The Falcons opened the game’s scoring when Jonathan Vigil picked up a Richard Ceja fumble and returned it six yards for a score to give his team a 7-0 lead with 3:43 left in the first quarter.
No. 13 Mendota, who upset No. 5 Foothill and No. 8 Highland the previous two weeks, needed just three plays to respond, evening the score on a 63-yard pass play from Juan Ceja to Murphy with 2:12 left in the opening quarter.
The Aztecs recovered a Denmark fumble on the first play of the second quarter and took a 14-7 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by Jacob Silva with 9:37 left in the first half.
But Independence had an answer again, this time with a 58-yard touchdown pass from Denmark to Anthony Rico, who made a leaping catch behind the Mendota defense and sprinted into the end zone to make it 14-14 with 5:01 left in the second quarter.
“That has to be the most stressful game I’ve ever coached,” Schilhabel said. “Going down to the wire, Mendota gave us everything we could handle, they’re a good team. These guys are battlers. We’re not finished. We have more games to play and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys right now.”