Freedom High School football team

The Freedom Hight School football team poses after a 35-34 win over California High on Nov. 30 in a North Coast Section playoff semifinal contest. 

Freedom football team’s never-say-die attitude was on full display in its 35-34 win over California in a North Coast Section (NCS) Division 1 semifinal last week.

The Falcons stormed back from a 21-point second-quarter deficit to secure its third straight trip to a NCS championship game.

“I have done this a long time,” said first-year Freedom head coach Andrew Cotter. “This is one of the most emotional games I have been a part of, and that is a beautiful thing.”

Freedom (9-3) will clash with San Ramon Valley (8-4) for the North Coast Section Division 1 championship at 7 p.m. on Dec. 8 at Heritage High School. Freedom’s offense outscored California 28-13 in the second half to secure the victory, but the Falcons defense also played a key role in the win.

A wall of Falcons met California’s Jahmal Cornwell short of the goal line on an attempted game-winning two-point conversion with 15 seconds left and the Falcons clinging to a 35-34 lead. California recovered the onside kick, and after Cameron Fitzpatrick hauled in a 28-yard reception, Tyler Bush’s 46-yard game-winning field goal attempt fell short, eliciting a wild Falcons’ celebration.

“I just knew we had to work harder and fix all out mental mistakes,” said Freedom quarterback Joey Aguilar, who finished 20 of 34 with 260 yards and four touchdowns. “Once we did that, they couldn’t stop us.”

California outgained Freedom 534 to 486 in total offense and took what appeared to be a commanding 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, but Freedom miraculously hung around despite committing four turnovers (three fumbles and an interception) before striking even on Mekel Ealy’s 7-yard touchdown reception with 7 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Falcons eventually pulled ahead 28-21 on Giles Jackson’s 66-yard catch and run midway through the fourth quarter, but the Grizzlies didn’t go down easy.

Cornwell’s 19-yard touchdown catch evened the score at 28 with 4:14 left in the fourth, but less than three minutes later, Freedom’s Diego Fratus burst through the California defensive line on a 1-yard score to give Freedom a 35-28 lead with just under two minutes to go.

“I knew I don’t get that many touches in a game, and when I do, I had to go hard,” said Fratus,

Fitzpatrick‘s 3-yard touchdown catch brought Cal within 35-34 with 19 seconds left, but the Grizzlies drew no closer.

“I am just so proud of our boys,” Cotter said. “They faced a lot of adversity throughout this game. We talked a lot about sticking together, staying true to our plan. Our boys just kept grinding and made some plays and we got back into it.”

Freedom now shifts its focus to its third straight North Coast Section Championship game appearance against San Ramon Valley, who advanced to the title game with a 14-3 win over Napa’s Vintage High.

San Ramon Valley is 8-4 on the season, its only losses coming to Monterey Trail, California, De La Salle and Freedom, which defeated the Wolves 37-24 on Sept. 14. To win, the Falcons must reverse their fortune in North Coast Section championship games. The squad lost 42-7 to De La Salle in the 2016 Open Division Championship and 37-0 to Liberty in the Division 1 final last season.

“It feels good to be going again,” Aguilar said. “We have to finish this time.”