Grizzlies senior kicker Brandon Brown, who had boomed kickoffs into the end zone all night, scrambled to line up for a game-winning 30-yard field goal.
Both teams were out of time outs. There was no more coaching left to do.
As time expired, Brown got a good foot on the kick, but it was Freedom senior lineman Justin Lee’s hand that was the deciding factor. Lee blocked the potential game-winning kick, putting an exclamation point on a 29-28 comeback victory for the Falcons in the first round of the North Coast Section playoffs.
“We just rallied together as a team in the second half,” Freedom senior Stephen Rodriguez said. “I knew we could do it.”
Rodriguez, who moved from receiver to quarterback following a knee injury last week to junior starter Dante Mayes, proved to be the difference. Trailing 28-22 in the fourth quarter, Rodriguez hit senior wideout Jordan Sheppard for a 41-yard pass, taking the Falcons to the California 12 yard line. Rodriguez called his own number for the go-ahead score, running it in for a touchdown.
An extra point by sophomore Anthony Cantabrana gave Freedom the 29-28 lead.
The win was a huge step forward for the Falcons, who felt slighted by only garnering a No. 8 seed from the NCS following a 10-1 regular season.
“We wanted our respect,” said junior receiver Darrell Daniels, recently named the Bay Valley Athletic League MVP, “and we got our respect.”
At one point before halftime, Freedom trailed the Grizzlies 21-7, and the outlook seemed bleak. The Falcons started the game disastrously, by fumbling the ball on the second play from scrimmage and allowing California to rack up a quick 14-0 lead.
But in the second half, Freedom started to pick up some momentum on the Grizzlies (7-4).
With roughly thirty seconds remaining in the third quarter and California leading 21-13, a Grizzly punt returner fumbled in his own territory. The Falcons scooped the ball up, and took it to the end zone on the first offensive play on a 44-yard run by Rodriguez.
Freedom tried to tie it up by going for the two-point conversion, but California snuffed out the Falcons’ reverse to senior receiver Jordan Sheppard.
Grizzlies sophomore quarterback Cameron Owen played very well in relief of starting senior Kevin Farley, and did not make life easy for Freedom’s defense. Owen led California right back down the field on the ensuing drive, culminating in a 31-yard touchdown pass to senior halfback Armani Washington. Early in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies seemed to have an insurmountable 28-19 advantage.
A 30-yard field goal on the next drive by Cantabrana put the Falcons back within striking distance, setting Freedom up for Rodriguez’s final score.
Now the Falcons face their toughest task all season – De La Salle. Freedom travels to Concord next week to take on the Spartans (9-1), who haven’t lost to a Northern California team in 222 consecutive games.
“We’ve got to play them,” Hartwig said. “Whether we play them now, or play them at the Coliseum, we’ve got to play them.”