Football: Tulare Western’s season turns south in title game

Tulare Western loses to San Joaquin Memorial 35-16 in Division II Valley Championship game

By Paul Myers

FRESNO – Tulare Union, winning the East Yosemite League and serving up a loss to previously undefeated Hanford, Tulare Western’s ultimate hopes of a Valley Championship were dashed.

San Joaquin Memorial (12-1) walked off their home field Friday night with a 35-16 title win. The Tulare Western Mustangs (11-3) walked off the field saddled with a loss. While players were shuffling to the away sideline to thank friends and family for coming out, head coach Ryan Rocha shared a few words with his talented wide receiver, interim quarterback and running back, Mikey Ficher.

“I’ve never coached a kid like him. I think the hardest thing when you get older coaching, is that selfishly I’ve always wanted to win a valley title. But this year, I just wanted to win it for a kid,” Rocha said. “That kid right there, he’s such a special kid and he fought like a damn warrior.”

After losing starting quarterback Elijah Burrell against Tulare Union, Ficher stepped in behind center to lead the team through a playoff run. Using complicated run packages and the occasional pass, Ficher racked up the yardage and the scores. Against the Panthers on Friday night, the do-it-all Mustang took the game into his own hands when they were down 14-0 in the second quarter. Ficher broke loose for a 35-yard gain to set up the offense at the 5-yard line. Fullback Henry Williams plunged in for the touchdown a few plays later. 

In the third quarter, when his team needed a spark, Ficher answered the bell a second time. Facing a 28-8 deficit, he dodged Panther tacklers up the middle and out ran the defense for a 58-yard touchdown. A second two-point conversion put the team down by two scores with 1:13 left in the third quarter. 

Unfortunately the Tulare Western defense couldn’t stop San Joaquin Memorial from scoring, nor could they give the offense the ball with enough time to make a difference. A real momentum shift slipped through their grasp on a fourth and one from midfield. Instead of seizing the opportunity and forcing a turnover over on downs, the Mustang defense let Panther running back, Jordan Hornbeak bounce it around the edge and up the sideline for a big gain. By the time the Mustangs finally got the ball back, it was too little, too late. 

Nonetheless, Ficher led the offense down the field, looking for a late game score. After an awkward tackle forced him off the field, Ficher forced his way back into the hapless ending. His drive inspired his head coach to tears.

“He gets hurt at the end and I don’t want him to go back in but then he tells me that he is in, he wants to finish it,” Rocha said.

Of course, his willingness to put it all on the line is nothing new. Through 2019 alone, Ficher has amassed 19 total touchdowns, 502 receiving yards and more than 400 rushing yards. And he missed a significant portion of the season.

In spite of the effort, Rocha said that his team just needed to play better if they wanted a different result. The Mustangs let up big plays early. Ficher, who was on the defensive side of the ball at safety, attempted to break up a pass from quarterback Finn Collins to wide receiver Mac Dalena. While he got a piece of it, Dalena ultimately came away with the catch and a 62-yard touchdown. 

Collins connected with his second wide receiver, Jalen McMillan, on a slant pattern against a blitz. Without defenders in the secondary to defend it, McMillian used his college level speed to go 74 yards for a touchdown, and a 21-8 lead. 

“Honestly I saw a team that ran out of gas and gave up some big plays. We are a running team…When you’re down 14 in the first quarter and the gap keeps separating it’s hard to come back. But that’s the situation we were in,” Rocha said.

While there’s no moral victories in football, there is still a lot to take away from the Mustang’s 2019 season. Rocha said he was impressed by how his players handled adversity all year. 

“We had a returning starter out for the whole year. Then guys just getting beat up, and then guys stepping up. They were asked to play positions and you didn’t learn it all off season or didn’t learn it in fall camp…they definitely rose above adversity and that’s a trait that is hard to see,” Rocha said.

He added that despite the adversity, his team still felt like they had a fighting chance to win valley.

“You can see these teams that hit adversity and it’s an excuse and it’s a reason to find why they lost… going into the playoffs, we unfortunately lost our quarterback, and honestly we walked in today thinking that this is ours. And you have to love that. You don’t love the fact that you lost, but you love the fact that you got guys who will lay their hats out there and do whatever it takes,” Rocha said.  

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