Western rushes past Mt. Whitney in 36-21 victory

Xavier Garcia scramble 3-36-23-kec. Tulare Western’s Xavier Garcia scrambles against Mt. Whitney at the Mineral King Bowl on Friday night. Despite a 15-0 deficit in the first quarter, Garcia and the Mustangs came back to win, 36-21. (Kason Clark)

The Mustangs overcome a slow start to defeat the Pioneers, 36-21; Tulare Western has now won seven straight games against Mt. Whitney in the series

VISALIA – In the first quarter on Friday night, the Tulare Western Mustangs found themselves in trouble with a 15-0 deficit against the Mt. Whitney Pioneers. But thanks to formidable rushing and a stingy defense, the Mustangs found their footing as they came back to win, 36-21, at the Mineral King Bowl.

“This team plays hard,” Tulare Western head coach Derek Rosa said. “We played our hearts out once again and if we keep doing that, we’re going to be a good team and a tough one to beat.”

Friday’s victory served as another win for the Mustangs over the Pioneers. Over the past 10 seasons, the Mustangs have won nine outings against the Pioneers and have now won seven straight in the series.

But the Pioneers had a strong start to threaten that streak. On their opening possession, the Pioneer run game marched them down the field. The Pioneers did find themselves in a 3rd and 21, but quarterback Micah Rodriguez completed a 22-yard pass to Carter Myers for the conversion.

A couple plays later at the Mustang 18-yard line, Rodriguez completed a quick pass to Myers who took it to the house. On the two-point attempt, Israel Briggs carried the ball in for the conversion for an 8-0 lead. While a couple throws finished off the drive, Mt. Whitney head coach Nathan Chamberlain believes their ground game was key to moving them down the field.

“We were able to run the ball and everything was clicking,” Chamberlain said. “We were running the ball well, mixing in some passes and there were no turnovers.”

The Mustangs tried to stay even with the Pioneers but quarterback Xavier Garcia’s pass was intercepted by Michael Sanchez. Then the Pioneers got right back to work with some more runs and screen passes. At the Mustang 23-yard line, Rodriguez connected with Briggs deep down the field for the touchdown, pushing the lead to 15-0.

Now in a big hole to start the second quarter, the Mustangs finally started clicking thanks to the ground game. The rushing trio of Mikey Johnson, Jaanver Singh and Danny Azevedo marched the offense right down the field as the Pioneers had no answer.

“We switched up to the wing t and we trusted these guys,” Azevedo said about the ground game. “Mikey Johnson is a stud in the backfield and you got me and Jaanver out on the wing, so we’re going to eat.”

Azevedo ran it up the middle for the eight-yard score on the next drive to put the Mustangs on the board. Then the Mustangs got more than they bargained for when Singh scrambled to the pylon on a botched extra point attempt that turned into two-point conversion to make it a 15-8 game.

The Mustangs relied on their ground game again when they got the ball back and drove down to the Pioneer six-yard line. Then on a fourth and goal, Garcia threw a jump ball to Aubrey Taylor, who came down with it for the score, erasing the early deficit and setting the score at 15-15.

“We were just keeping our heads up to focus on the next play,” Acevedo said about coming back. “They started 15-0 so we came out and executed.”

The Mustangs capitalized on a Mt. Whitney turnover as Garcia threw an eight-yard slant to Taylor for a touchdown, giving Tulare Western a 22-15 lead at halftime.

Late in the third quarter, the Mustangs got back on track thanks to a punt giving them a short field. After two plays got Tulare Western down to the Pioneer 33-yard line, Azevedo broke through the Pioneer defensive line and sprinted through the secondary for the touchdown, pushing the lead to 29-15.

The Pioneers finally put together a solid drive as they tried to stop the bleeding. But the drive ended with Rodriguez throwing another interception to Taylor in the end zone. After allowing two touchdowns to start the night, Rosa believes the Tulare Western defense picked up the energy and carried it through the rest of the game.

“It was just settling down and doing our job,” Rosa said. “We didn’t bring our own energy to start but once we settled down and the offense gave us a little spark to start, everything just started clicking.”

But the Pioneer defense finally came through with a much-needed play. Early in the fourth, Noah Murillo intercepted a pass from Garcia and returned it to the Mustang 16-yard line. A few plays later, Rodriguez connected with Briggs for a two-yard score. Rodriguez missed the extra point, but Mt. Whitney now trailed, 29-21.

The Mustangs looked to move on from the turnover and run out the clock. Again, the ground game got going to get the offense onto Mt. Whitney’s side of the field. But on fourth-and-one, Johnson’s rushing attempt was stopped short by just a few inches to give the ball back to the Pioneers.

The Pioneers had the opportunity to tie the game with just under five minutes left in the game. But on the first play of the drive, Rodriguez threw an interception to Orosco. While the momentum could have swung back to the Pioneers, Rosa was proud of his defense for coming up clutch.

“That was awesome,” Rosa said about the play. “Great part about the defense, flushing it out, playing the next play and doing their job.”

With the ball back, Singh ran the ball in for a six-yard score to extend the Mustangs’ lead to 36-21. With the win the Mustangs improved to 2-1 on the season and will look to carry their momentum into the rest of the year. As they move forward, Rosa hopes that the Mustangs will learn to start games with more energy while also remembering what won them this game. 

“We can run the football at will and we can play defense when we strap up to do our assignment,” Rosa said. “I think we’re a very, very tough defense to score on and as long as we start with energy and play all four quarters instead of three, I know it’s a cliche but that’s what it’s all about.”

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