By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
CALISTOGA — With a bye last week, Calistoga had an extra seven days to prepare for Upper Lake, the team that had emerged as the dominant force in the NCL II/Bay Football League. The Wildcats clearly made the most of it.
Containing well on defense, finding holes up front on offense and making just enough big plays on both sides of the ball, Calistoga punctuated its remarkable 2012 turnaround with a 10-6 victory over the Cougars at the Napa County Fairgrounds.
“They deserve everything they got,” Calistoga coach Paul Harrell said of his players. “They played hard, they played hurt, they played tired.”
And they played well, especially on defense. Harrell said he and offensive coordinator Jacob Blakeley noticed on film that Upper Lake ran a lot of motion toward the outside in its toss offense, but really preferred to take the ball up the middle. The Wildcats’ outside defenders didn’t bite on the outside stuff.
“Their linebacker play was phenomenal,” Upper Lake coach Alex Stabiner said. “The D-tackles were able to soak up our linemen, and the inside linebackers were able to scrape and get to the play from either the play side or the backside. I was trying to get tight ends on ’em, and we just weren’t getting the job done on the offensive line.”
It was sweet redemption for the Wildcats, who lost to Upper Lake in 2010 and 2011 by a combined score of 71-0. And it was indication of just how far Calistoga has come from last year’s 0-10 mess.
The Wildcats improved to 3-2 in league play with the win, and Upper Lake dropped to 4-1, making for a very crowded race that also involves St. Vincent, Tomales and California School for the Deaf.
The game was in doubt until just inside the 2-minute warning, when Calistoga held Upper Lake quarterback Travis Coleman to a 7-yard gain on a fourth-and-9 play that started at the Cougars’ 21-yard line.
Upper Lake, responding like a champion, had cut the score to 10-6 on its previous possession, grinding out a 75-yard drive that included a pair of third-and-5 conversions and a fourth-and-2 pickup. Ward Beecher scored the touchdown for the Cougars on an 8-yard run with 5:28 left, but failed to crack the goal line on a 2-point conversion attempt as he lost his footing.
The first half was scoreless, thanks to a defensive save by Calistoga’s Orion Harrell. With about 2 minutes left before halftime, Upper Lake quarterback Travis Coleman ran the ball from the Calistoga 34-yard line and looked like he had a shot at scoring. But as he reached for the flag, the ball popped out and Harrell recovered in the end zone.
Calistoga staked its lead while dominating in third quarter. The Wildcats began the second half with a 79-yard drive, Dylan Alvarado finishing with a 3-yard run on third-and-goal.
The speedy Alvarado had a couple of nice runs on Calistoga’s ensuing possession, setting up Danny Alfaro for a 42-yard field goal to make it 10-0. Coach Harrell said he has seen Alfaro bang 55-yarders in practice.
It didn’t help Upper Lake when two-way star Joe Valdez, a 243-pound running back and defensive end, injured his left ankle while trying to make a tackle in the third quarter. Valdez was down for a long time and had to be helped off the field, and the Wildcats scored all their points directly following the injury.
Calistoga’s Alvarado also hurt an ankle, but it was just a couple plays before the end of the game.
The Upper Lake players took the loss hard, some of them pleading with teammates for better play during the second half and reacting with grief when it was over.
“This group does not like to lose, and they haven’t lost much throughout their four years at Upper Lake football,” Stabiner said. “It’s gonna be a test of their character. We always say in Upper Lake, it’s how you react on your worst day, is the measure of your character. Tonight wasn’t our night. So I reminded them of that. Pretty bad night tonight — how you gonna react to that?”
For Calistoga, the result was clearer. This victory showed the Wildcats they can play with anyone on their schedule.
“This is the No. 1 team in the league,” junior linebacker Walker Hughes said. “And next week we have Tomales, who we haven’t beat in 30-plus years. We’re definitely confident coming into that game.”
You can reach Phil Barber at email@example.com.