Big crowd at Witter Field buoyed by strong performance
What a difference a year makes.
For Piedmont’s football team last year’s opening game was a stinging 48-7 defeat in Napa by Justin Siena, the NCS champions in 2012.
Fast forward to Friday, August 29. Played under the lights at Witter Field, the Highlanders were prepared this year, defeating the Braves 24-14 for a satisfying start to the 2014 season.
In front of a big home crowd, Piedmont’s football team did not disappoint. With a slow start and a quick 6-0 deficit, the Highlanders rallied behind huge defensive plays, scoring 17 points in the second quarter to take control of the game. Seven PHS defenders accounted for at least five tackles each, along with three forced turnovers – two fumble recoveries and an interception.
With an ignited offense, quarterback Cole Gruendl threw some picture-perfect passes while a committee of four Piedmont running backs took turns wearing down their opponents.
“We learned a lot of lessons tonight. Though it didn’t go our way at first, we had the tools to find a way to make it work,” said head coach Scott Coats with a beaming smile. “[Justin Siena] brought a strong run defense and I’m very proud of our guys who overcame adversity. It’s rewarding to win an ugly game – they scratched and clawed to find a way to win.”
Piedmont’s offense was slow going at first with rotating quarterback Miles Kim getting sacked to end the first series. But the Highlanders defense stood strong, forcing a punt and then recovering a fumble due to the quick reflexes of defensive back Frank Kossack. The Highlanders punted again and after three substantial rushing attacks, the Braves scored on an 18-yard slant route. After missing the PAT, Justin Siena led 6-0 with the first quarter in the books.
It didn’t take long for the home team to respond. In fact, it took three plays – two short runs and a 56-yard touchdown pass that sailed over the middle into the arms of sophomore receiver Jacob Watson. Andrew Strauch nailed the PAT to give PHS a 7-6 lead.
Piedmont’s next series also resulted in a score as Kim exploded for 41 yards on a quarterback keeper. Though Gruendl was sacked next, Piedmont was close enough for Strauch to complete a 17-yard field goal to boost the score to 10-6.
Though dominating on defense, the Highlanders did everything in their power to stop the Braves from scoring with one minute left in the half. Defensive lineman and co-captain Matt Burge applied pressure to the opposing QB and forced an incomplete pass for a turnover on downs.
With only 41 seconds before halftime, Gruendl connected long passes to Nick Pacult and Joey Moyer before Connor Garrett punched in a 4-yard rushing touchdown to make it 17-6 at the break.
“Our defense in the first quarter really fired is up,” said Gruendl who completed 7-of-14 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown and rushed three times for 10 yards and a score. “We had the mentality that if our defense can give us these chances, we better take them.”
The third quarter resembled the opening of the night as both teams were hampered by each other’s defense. Lineman Hunter Abel made two big tackles on the run while linebacker Joe Cumbelich shut down the passing game with a third down sack. On the next defensive series, Kossack had his second defensive gem of the night – an interception off a tipped pass with a 20-yard return.
But the Highlanders couldn’t get into the end zone and with 38 seconds left in the third period, Justin Siena scored a touchdown on the ground making it a one-possession game, 17-14.
The Highlanders’ first drive in the final period was a short one. Pacult had a sizzling 65-yard kickoff return to put PHS in great scoring position. But the Braves forced a Piedmont at the one-yard line to keep the home team from scoring.
Two drives later, Justin Siena was again moving, but Jacob Watson delivered a big hit to force a fumble. Playing defensive back, Gruendl recovered the loose ball. Following some great blocking, he rambled upfield for 41 yards. On the next play, Gruendl, back at quarterback, finished what he started and ran a QB-option for a 12-yard touchdown. With Strauch’s extra-point kick, Piedmont led 24-14 with 3:51 left, leaving it all up to the defense.
With Justin Siena on its own 20-yard line, on a 4th and 1 situation, Abel, Burge and Mason Willrich plugged up the hole and stopped the Braves’ running back in his tracks to clinch Piedmont’s first win of the season. As the clock ran down, PHS students rushed onto the field to celebrate.
“We’re going to build off this win. We’re going to get up early Saturday morning, celebrate and then get to work,” said coach Coats.
Defensive standouts included Burge (8 tackles), Kim, Pacult, Abel and Willrich (7 tackles each), Xavier Prospero (6 tackles) and William Bird (5 tackles). Cumbelich had four tackles with a QB sack, and Kossack had an interception and a fumble recovery.
Kim was the leading rusher with 59 yards, while Garrett had 32 yards on 10 carries. Though injured in the game, Gabe Watson, Abel and Lloyd Ashton made a big impact.