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Trojan defense comes up huge in win over Pitman

By: Nick Pecoraro/Telegraph Correspondent
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Having held off a tough Pitman team, Oak Ridge High’s varsity football team (11-1) plays its first road playoff game at 1 p.m. Saturday when they face Burbank.

The Titans, the undefeated (12-0) No. 2 seed, lost to the Trojans, 30-28 in an exciting game last year in the first round of the playoffs and will be looking to avenge that defeat.

“Burbank’s a lot like they were last year except better,” Oak Ridge coach Eric Cavaliere said. “They’re big, strong, fast and physical, which is all you want your football team to be. They’ve had a great year and they’re playing with confidence. I think they average something like 547 rushing yards per game and another 87 yards passing.”

While Burbank defeated Pleasant Grove to reach the semifinals, Oak Ridge got by Pitman, thanks to an opportunistic defense. There were times when Oak Ridge didn’t make the stops it needed to. Then there were the times when they made the biggest plays at precisely the right times.

The Trojans survived a 17-16 fight with the Pitman Pride from Turlock Friday night. The Trojans’ biggest play of the game came after Pitman executed on arguably their biggest play of the season. After converting on a fourth-and-three down to the Trojan 31, Pitman ultimately scored on Mario Lewis’ five-yard score, making it 17-16 Oak Ridge with 2:12 remaining.

With their season on the line, Pitman went for two and the lead. The gamble proved to be costly for the Pride as Trojan linebacker Thomas Mahlman stopped Lewis from reaching the end zone again, preserving the one-point lead for Oak Ridge.

“It was a heck of a time to get a stop. It was probably the play of the game,” said Cavaliere.

Oak Ridge punted on the next possession and put its trust in their defense with 1:28 to go. Quarterback Jason Samuels and the rest of the offense were forced to watch from the sideline.

“It’s hard when you don’t have the ball in your hands. You just have to hope at that point,” said Samuels.

Pitman only needed to get within field goal range for a chance to win as kicker Donovan Bravo had already made good on a 33-yarder earlier in the game. Wyatt Clapper’s pass to Justin Van Fleet put the Pride at midfield for a first down with less than a minute on the clock. On the next play, the ball was knocked loose on the snap. After a long scrum, the referee signaled in the Trojans’ direction and none other than Mahlman was there again, recovering the ball and the win for the Trojans.

“It was stressful,” said Mahlman, who also recovered a first-half fumble. “We’re all brothers out there. When we stick together as a unit, we make stops. It’s unbelievable.”

The Trojan defense dictated the game early in the first half, forcing three turnovers while capitalizing on one. Two fumbles and a one-handed, juggling interception that was hauled in by Jacob Sipes, who returned it nearly 40 yards, favored the Trojans in the first 24 minutes.

“We knew the turnover battle would be a key element in the game. For us to come here and not play our best game and still get a win says a lot about these guys,” said Cavaliere. “Now we have a one-week lease that will expire or renew next week.”

Leading 7-0, Trent Buenzli forced Oak Ridge’s second fumble of the first quarter and initiated a Trojan drive near midfield. Samuels, chased out of the pocket, found Ross Dwelley, who broke tackles and scored on a 32-yard play. Lamb’s extra point put Oak Ridge up 14-0.

Pitman’s Brent Nelle picked up a pair of first downs on the way to the Pride’s first score. Nelle finished what he started with a four-yard carry into the end zone, narrowing the Trojan lead to just seven to close out the half.

A 50-yard touchdown pass to Byron Spain on the first drive of the second half was negated after Spain stepped out of bounds before making the catch, resulting in a 15-yard penalty for the Trojans. Spain made up the lost ground on the very next play with a 44-yard reception back into Pitman territory. The drive resulted in a 32-yard field goal from Lamb to give Oak Ridge a 17-7 cushion.

Oak Ridge (11-1) heads into Thanksgiving vacation with a date with either Burbank or Pleasant Grove after Turkey Day.

Said Samuels, “Any time you can get by a playoff football game like this, with the way we played, you have to be thankful for it.”