Hawks end Pioneers’ path to Valley title

Micah Rodriguez (#5), quarterback for Mt. Whitney, fakes the hand-off to Kysen Sing Galvizo (#4).(Kenny Goodman)

Mission Oak defeats Mt. Whitney 35-12 in Division III quarterfinal round propelled by six turnovers and aggressive running game

TULARE – Mission Oak cut the Pioneers’ trail to a Valley championship short on Thursday night when they pillaged the ball from Mt. Whitney six times while holding them to only 12 points.

This was also Mission Oak’s second victory over Mt. Whitney this season, and their fourth straight victory over them since 2018. Making matters even worse, the last loss the Pioneers suffered came at the talons of the Hawks in week four, which albeit was a much closer game with a score of 25-22.

The Hawks came into the Division III, Nov. 9 matchup at the No. 3 seed while Mt. Whitney was the No. 6 seed. Both were coming into Bob Mathias Stadium with respectable wins in the opening round of the playoffs as Mt. Whitney defeated Nipomo 28-18, and Mission Oak defeated Independence 38-31.

But past victories meant little in their quarterfinal bout when both teams got off to sluggish starts. Mission Oak, despite winning by a 23 point margin, was only ahead 7-6 coming out of halftime. Hawks head coach Marty Martin credits his players and coaches for their strong second half performance.

“Our coaches have done a really good job of making adjustments. Our kids have grown into our system, and they’re figuring out how to win, and how to do the things that they’re supposed to do,” Martin said.

Easily the most questionable moment in the game for Mission Oak was when their defense got beat on a razzle dazzle wide receiver pitch pass from Israel Biggs to Xavier Soto. It was the Pioneers’ first possession of the half and they were down 7-6. What initially looked like a run led to an explosive 58 yard pass and catch to get down to the Mission Oak 10-yard-line.

Quarterback Micah Rodriguez cleaned up the drive with a TD pass to Carter Myers to go up 12-7 with 9:34 left in the third quarter. However, that was about the last of the offensive production either crowd would see from the Pioneers on the night.

And while it was an awe-inspiring play, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to the Mission Oak coaching staff.

“We told the kids right before, ‘they’re going to come out with that, they’re going to come out with some type of trick play,’” Martin said.

The Hawks offense found their resolve and answered right back to retake the lead. On their ensuing drive. Instead of countering with a trick play of their own they broke into Mt. Whitney territory by letting Demetrius Whitfield take the ball 42 yards down to the Pioneer 1-yard-line. Then they let Kenny Jackson clean it up from there with a 1 yard plunge into the endzone, and walked away from the drive up 14-12 with 7:04 left.

Mission Oak’s score left the Pioneers search for answers on offense and defense. Meanwhile the Hawks were pillaging Mt. Whitney offense with turnover. Just before the end of the third quarter the Hawks forced a turnover-on-downs for one of their six turnovers in the game.

To open the fourth quarter Jackson ripped a run to the Mt. Whitney 40-yard-line. Daniel Gonzalez and Jacob Ramirez cleaned up the drive when Ramirez snuck in between the corner and safety in cover-2, and Gonzalez was able to hit him for a touchdown to leave the score 21-12 early in the fourth quarter.

But Ramirez wasn’t done yet. Defensively, he found himself in the right place at the right time. While Mt. Whitney was trying to get themselves back into the game, Rodriguez dumped the ball off to Biggs over the middle. What could have been a short gain led to a bobbled catch, tackle and then interception when Ramirez reached out and snatched the ball out of the air.

“It’s not like that’s unusual for him. It’s not new for him. You know he’s just a great kid. He’s like a quarterback back there and making sure that everybody’s lined up correctly. He does a really good job with that,” Martin said.

By the time Mission Oak started relying on Jackson to grind out the clock, the writing was well written on the wall. Jackson had the ball in his hands and the team on his back getting chunks of yards every play until he broke through the defense and scored a 16 yard touchdown – noticeably with a Pioneer pulling his facemask as he crossed the goal line. Down 28-12 with only 5:11 on the clock left Mt. Whitney with only big play options to get back into it, and that didn’t work out very well.

Mission Oak got their fifth turnover when Rodriguez had the ball knocked out from him in the pocket. Gonzalez wasn’t shy about getting another score for his offense when he scampered 16 yards for a touchdown, albeit met with a heavy hit at the goal line to go up 35-12.

The Hawks got their sixth and final turnover on the very last drive of the game when Achilles Sierra got his second pick in the game in Mt. Whitney territory to seal it.

While Mt. Whitney will have to head to the off season, Mission Oak will host the Washington Union Panthers on Nov. 17.

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