Cougars rally but fall in thriller

The Cougars' Joseph Cupp makes a play in Friday's game against Live Oak. Photo by Erica Bennett.

In 2017, the Live Oak and Christopher football teams needed double overtime to decide the outcome. Friday night, the teams’ latest game was no less thrilling. Jonathan Singleton connected with Elijah Fernandez on a 9-yard touchdown with 28.9 seconds remaining, and Caleb Ojeda sealed things with an interception moments later as the Acorns edged the host Cougars 33-31 in what was the latest installment of one of the most anticipated non-league games in the South Valley.

Afterward, three to four Christopher players went over to chat with a group of Live Oak players, symbolizing the nature of this rivalry: competitive yet friendly and respectful.

“It’s a true rivalry game,” said Fernandez, a junior who also had a 10-yard touchdown reception just before halftime that gave the Acorns (2-0) a 27-8 lead going into the intermission. “Give credit to both crowds because they were great. It was just a great football game.”

Of that, there was no doubt. This was a game where standouts shined, none brighter than Cougars senior Jason Scirigione, who had 11 receptions for 225 yards—not including the first drive—including TD catches of 20, 22, 11 and 69 yards. Whether Scirigione was in the slot, at tight end or receiver, the Acorns had no answer for the burly 6-foot-2, 215-pounder. Scirigione had two touchdowns against Live Oak in last year’s game, so going into Friday’s contest he thought he’d face the same type of defense Monte Vista Christian employed against him in Week One: double- and triple-coverage.

“But when we came out, literally the first play of the game no one was guarding me at all,” he said. “I don’t know if they were having defensive issues, but on the second drive no one was remotely close (to me again). So I talked with coach P (Pierleoni) and told him, ‘You have to throw me the ball because literally no one is guarding me.’ I’d have one linebacker on me and when we went to play action, a lot of times they bit so no one was on me. So I don’t know what was going on with them defensively, but it worked out good for me.”

Fernandez had his own career game, with the junior wide receiver finishing with four receptions for 73 yards. On the game-winning TD, Fernandez ran a curl route down the left seam to the middle of the sideline of the end zone, where Singleton found him for the score.

“I was supposed to run a 4-yard out, which I did,” Fernandez said. “I knew my other receiver Jesse Isais was going to sell the corner inside so I could go outside and make a play. And I made the play because this is what I live for and I love football to death. … When I caught the ball, I felt like I was the king of the world. No greater feeling.”

For the second week in a row, Live Oak’s defense looked strong in the first half and downright shaky in the second half. With Cougars quarterback Ben Sanford and Scirigione carving up the Acorns defense for several big gains, it seemed that Live Oak was on its way to defeat after Trevor Robledo’s 32-yard field goal gave the Cougars a 31-27 lead with 6:36 left, capping a 23-0 second-half run.

However, the Live Oak offense—having not scored in the second half—delivered when it counted the most. The Acorns went on an 11-play, 67-yard drive, capped by Singleton’s 9-yard TD throw to Fernandez. Singleton rolled to his left by design and found Fernandez near the left corner of the end zone for the winning score. It was a play the Acorns routinely work on in practice.

“The touchdown play was what we call a smash route,” Acorns coach Mike Gemo said. “The guys have been running it since May, so we knew what we were doing. The players called a couple of plays throughout that drive that they believed in, and I’ve got to go with what they believe in sometimes. … Elijah had a little injury last week and came back this week and had a great game for us. We knew what he could do and we’re excited to have him up here.”

With only 29 seconds left, it seemed for certain that the Cougars were on their way to defeat. But Robledo returned the ensuing kickoff 35 yards to his 40-yard line, and Christopher was in business. With Robledo’s ability to be accurate from 40 yards in, the Cougars would need two decent-sized gains to get within his range.

They got the first when Sanford connected with Tyler Davis for a 27-yard hookup, putting the ball at the Live Oak 42-yard line with 11.2 seconds remaining. But on the next play, Caleb Ojeda came up with his second interception of the game to seal the outcome. It was one of the critical plays of the game, the other being when Acorns linebacker Ashton Green sacked Sanford on a third-down play from the Acorns’ 45-yard line just before the end of the third quarter.

The Cougars had scored TDs on of their first two second-half possessions, and they were marching down the field yet again before Green’s big play. If the Cougars go on to score on that drive—which they certainly looked like they were going to do—the outcome would’ve probably been different.

“Ashton Green came into his own a little bit tonight,” Gemo said. “He’s a sophomore and we had him do a few things. It was a straight blitz—we told him to go and he made the play. I’m proud the kids fought for the whole 48 minutes. It seems like whenever we play, it comes down to something like that every single year.”

Nick Lomanto rushed for a career-high 182 yards on 20 carries, including an electrifying 83-yard TD run. Singleton completed 14-of-22 passes for 156 yards, including TD passes of 28, 10 and 9 yards. Sanford was methodical and spectacular at times, completing 20-of-33 passes for 313 yards and three TDs.

With Sanford unable to play the first quarter, the Cougars opened the game in the Wildcat formation, with Tyler Davis gaining the bulk of the yardage on the drive that led to his TD pass to Scirigione. Pierleoni and Scirigione said though it was tough losing, they felt proud of the team’s effort.

“I’m happy with the way we played,” said Scirigione, who also played long snapper at the end of the game. “We knew going into the locker room at halftime we’d have a chance to come back.”

Said Pierleoni: “I’m real proud of the way the kids came back and showed some heart. And then the Live Oak kids showed some heart after we did. We were really discombobulated that fist half not having Ben start the game. We really didn’t get our continuity going for a while and had no rhythm. But our coaches did a great job at halftime with adjustments. It was a great game just like last year.”

Joe Fleming, a two-way lineman for Christopher, made his presence felt defensively, batting down at least two passes and finishing with a couple of sacks. In addition to his spectacular offensive showing, Lomanto also shined defensively with an interception. It was one of three picks for the Acorns, as Ojeda and Jered Brindle had interceptions.

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