One of the best things about a sport – any sport – is witnessing an athlete or team strive for perfection. It boils down to the blood, sweat and tears put into every practice from preseason to postseason. Piedmont’s football team achieved that kind of perfection.
On Friday, November 7 the Highlanders defeated Alameda 21-14 in front of a capacity crowd at Witter Field. The win sealed Piedmont’s sixth ever undefeated season (10-0 overall) and launches them into the Division IV North Coast Section as the No. 2 seed behind No. 1 St. Mary’s.
“There was a lot of joy, but also a lot of relief after we won that game,” said coach Coats who was soaked after his team dumped a cooler of water over him. “We didn’t play our best but we played tough and figured out a way to win. That’s what we’re looking for in NCS.”
In regard to the history made that night, Coats said, “I’m very happy for the kids, the crowd, the community – it was very emotional and well-deserved.”
It was an even matchup from start to finish as Piedmont accumulated 235 yards and Alameda gained 264 yards. The Highlanders had more trouble than usual on the ground (held below 100 yards for the first time all season) and while they never trailed in the game, the end result came down to the wire, sealed by a 4th quarter interception from William Bird and finished with a one-yard punch into the end zone by running back Connor Garrett to make it a 21-14 game with 2:06 left on the clock.
Piedmont saw smooth sailing on its first drive of the night as Gabe Watson took a run for 35 yards and quarterback Cole Gruendl found Jacob Watson for a 17-yard reception. After an 11-yard rush from Andrew Meredith, Garrett scored his first TD of the night on a one-yard plough up the middle behind the blocking of Gabe Watson. Alameda, however, responded in kind. Alameda’s running back Omar Badr combined two rushes for 82 yards before diving into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown. With only four minutes off the clock the game was tied 7-7.
The Highlanders turned the ball over on downs on the next series but the Hornets were also unable to move the ball as Mason WIllrich made a 3rd down stop against a QB keeper. It only took three plays for the Highlanders to take the lead again. The first two plays saw no gain, but on third down Gruendl had a lot of time in the pocket (excellent pass blocking from Spencer Chan, Connor Addiego, Jakob Armstrong) and sailed a bomb to Joey Moyer on a post route for a 61-yard touchdown reception. He caught the ball under pressure, fought off his defender and recovered enough to reach the end zone. After Piedmont forced a three and out on defense, the home team led 14-7 going into the second quarter.
It became a defensive contest after that as both teams did what they could on offense, but couldn’t reach the end zone. On a long, 16-play drive by Alameda, linebacker Fiachra Collins made his presence felt with a QB sack for -6 yards. On 4th and 5, linebacker Miles Kim made an essential stop at the line of scrimmage to force a turnover. Now deep in its own territory Piedmont committed a turnover with Gruendl throwing a pick. The Hornets capitalized from the 30-yard line as QB Derrick Dizon connected with receiver Antonio Riley for a 30-yard TD to end the half 14-14.
Piedmont did not allow another score for the remainder of the game. Collins, Willrich, Hunter Abel and Matt Burge dominated the box and didn’t allow any more big carries. It was the same on the other side of the ball, however, as Alameda forced another turnover on downs. The Highlander defense answered right back with Joe Cumbelich and Burge applying pressure to the QB and causing a fumble for -18 yards. Alameda punted but the Highlanders also resorted to punting in the beginning of the 4th quarter, still tied 14-14.
Alameda punted on 4th down after Nick Pacult and Jacob Watson stopped the run and then Piedmont turned the ball over with its second interception of the night.
Two plays later, Piedmont’s William Bird intercepted Dizon’s pass (QB hurried by Jacob Watson) and on the next drive Piedmont would not be denied. On 3rd and 10 Gruendl found Meredith on an inside slant for a gain of 14 yards. Next Gruendl passed to Cumbelich who drew a Pass Interference call for Piedmont. Now up close and personal with the end zone, Garrett returned to the field from injury and jammed the ball into the end zone to give his team a 21-14 advantage. It was all up to the defense after that.
“It was one of those moments – it was Sr. Night, we were going for 10-0, my brothers were on my back, the crowd was behind us – I told coach I had to go in,” said Garrett who scored two touchdowns for Piedmont.
Alameda had two minutes to gain 80 yards for the score and in the middle of the drive Cumbelich intercepted Dizon’s pass, but fumbled the ball shortly after. With a second chance Alameda mixed QB runs with long passes. Finally on 3rd and 4 Jacob Watson sacked the quarterback and then the Highlanders made one last stand on a passing play to claim an undefeated season.
Pandemonium ensued as the Witter Field stands emptied out onto the field to celebrate a historic moment in Piedmont history.
Watson led the rushing charge with 70 yards on 14 touches and Garrett scored both rushing TDs on four carries. Gruendl threw for a touchdown and 139 yards with Moyer catching two passes for 73 yards and a score. Meredith had four catches for 43 yards.
On defense safety Xavier Prospero was aggressive against the run and led the team with 10 tackles followed by nine from Willrich and Jacob Watson (one sack). Collins added eight tackles and a sack, Pacult made eight tackles and Burge landed seven.
“We could not have done this without this crowd and I am very proud of every single person out here,” said Burge, a senior co-captain on the team. “Now we focus on NCS and we’re going to do it by playing the same game we’ve played since summer.”
The Highlanders (10-0 overall), seeded No. 2 in NCS, will host No. 15 Kennedy of Richmond this Friday at 7 p.m. at Witter Field.