Ehren Bristol celebrates Portola's victory with a bottle of sparkling cider.Shannon Morrow
Maybe the only thing better than winning a section championship is winning it against the same team that beat you for the championship the year before.
The Portola Tigers defeated Modoc 34-13 in the Division IV Northern Section title game at Portola High School last Wednesday, healing the memories from last season’s title match, in which Modoc upset the Tigers on the very same field.
“It’s sweet revenge,” said Portola senior Chase Shirley, while walking up to the locker room after the game.
Portola and Modoc both entered the title game undefeated, after each dominated their respective leagues.
“We knew we were in for a dogfight,” said Portola coach Steve Heskett. “Modoc was pretty identical to us.”
Portola moved the ball well on its opening drive until giving up a fumble on Modoc’s 27-yard line.
The Modoc Braves attempted a deep pass on their first play, but Portola’s Erick Miller intercepted the ball to give possession right back to the Tigers.
Once again the Tigers worked the ball downfield, with their biggest gain on a reverse play from Alberto Pena to Cliff Robinson.
A few plays later, Robinson scampered around the right side for a 3-yard touchdown, giving Portola a 7-0 lead with 4:31 remaining in the first quarter.
Modoc again turned the ball over with a fumble early in their drive, but stepped it up on defense and forced Portola to punt.
Early in the second quarter, Portola fumbled while trying to punch the ball up the middle on third and one.
Modoc capitalized on Portola’s turnover to tie the game 7-7, after a gutsy fourth-and-four shovel pass put the Braves in scoring position.
On the ensuing kickoff, Modoc caught Portola by surprise with an onside kick, but Shirley narrowly beat a Modoc player to the ball and covered it perfectly to maintain possession for the Tigers.
Portola suffered its third turnover of the game when a lateral pass was picked off by Modoc and returned to Portola’s 10-yard line.
The Tigers held Modoc until fourth and goal from the four, when the Braves completed a pass into the end zone for a touchdown.
With Modoc leading 13-7, the Tigers found themselves in the very unfamiliar position of trailing in a ball game.
“We talked about it before the game,” said Heskett. “If things don’t go our way, we don’t start finger pointing. We battled from there on out.”
Portola answered back with huge run by Pena well into Modoc territory. Robinson then carried in a 31-yard touchdown, set up by a fake handoff to Pena which the entire defense keyed on.
Portola had three ball carriers rush for triple digits. Adams recorded 125 yards on seven carries, Robinson posted 110 yards on 15 carries, and Pena gained 100 yards on 18 carries.
On Modoc’s next drive, the Braves made it to Portola’s 4-yard line with several big runs up the middle, created by a trap.
The Braves ran a reverse on third-and-goal that might have scored, except Miller made a great solo tackle in open field.
The very next play, Modoc threw a perfect pass over the middle to an open receiver in the end zone, but Miller made a monster hit on the receiver, knocking out the ball and preventing the score.
Shortly after Portola took over on downs, Cole Adams muscled through the middle and showed good speed as he outran two Modoc defenders on his way to a 78-yard touchdown with less than a minute to play in the half.
Modoc’s last play before halftime was a deep pass, which Robinson intercepted as time expired.
With Portola leading 20-13 going into the third quarter, Modoc went three and out on its opening drive of the second half.
“We made adjustments at half to their trap in the middle, and once we shut that down, they didn’t have much left,” explained Heskett.
In contrast, the Tigers put together a beautiful drive, with good runs by Adams, Pena and Robinson, and a nice pass by quarterback Damian Norden. The drive was capped with a 4-yard touchdown run by Pena.
Portola’s athleticism and skill on the field was showcased by intelligent play calling from the sidelines.
“This is an elite group of kids,” said Heskett. “It makes play calling easy. Coaching isn’t hard when you have kids like that.”
Portola continued to dominate the second half when Pena intercepted Modoc on third and nine.
This set up a 54-yard touchdown pass from Norden to Robinson, giving the Tigers a 34-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Norden completed three of six passes for 82 yards. Robinson made two catches for 64 yards, and Mario Rodriquez claimed an 18-yard reception.
Portola’s defense continued to shut out Modoc through the second half, highlighted by 15-yard sack by Ehren Bristol late in the game.
With disciplined pursuit and excellent tackling, Portola’s defense was stellar, as usual. Shirley, Adams, Pena and Evan Hungerford made three solo tackles apiece, and Bristol earned two.
Shirley led with nine assists on defense, followed by Bristol, Chris Stanton and Dillon Soares with six each. Mario Rodriguez collected five assists, while Robinson, Miller, Hungerford and Kyle Heskett earned four apiece.
“If you look at Modoc’s schedule, no one was really physical with them except Fall River,” said Heskett. “We came out and socked them in the mouth.”
As Portola took a knee to run out the clock, the home crowd stood to cheer for their 12-0 Portola Tigers winning the Northern Section championship.
The last time Portola won the Northern Section championship was in 2000, when the Tigers finished with a 10-2 record.
The last time the Tigers went undefeated was for two consecutive years in 1969 and 1970. Portola finished 8-0 both seasons, and there were no playoffs.
The coach at the time was Bob Wise, who coached for 25 years from 1952-1977. The stadium at Portola High School is named after him.
His son, Bobby Wise, is the current defensive coordinator for Portola.
“He’s the whole difference maker in our program,” said Heskett. “He played at Fresno State and has more football knowledge than anyone we see.”
This season, Portola leads the Northern Section with the number one offense in scoring and the number one defense in points allowed.
Combined with their section title and undefeated record, the Tigers are a good candidate for the state championship bowl game at the Home Depot Center in the Los Angeles area.
The Small Schools State Championship will be played Friday, Dec. 18, at 4 p.m.
“We’re still going to practice a couple days a week,” said Heskett. “We have a pretty good shot (at being selected). We’ll know Dec. 7 or 8. If it happens, it happens.”
With the possibility of a state championship game looming, Heskett is glad that his time with his players isn’t over yet.
Heskett has coached this group of kids for seven or eight years now, starting at Pop Warner and continuing through junior varsity and varsity.
“This is the most unselfish team I’ve ever coached,” said Heskett.
Throughout the season, the team gathers for dinner Thursdays and Fridays at Heskett’s house, which means a lot of cooking for his wife, Julie.
Heskett also opens his home as a place for players to stay over. The morning of this phone interview, there were five players sleeping downstairs.
“This is a special group of kids, not just on the field, but off the field as well,” said Heskett. “I wish they wouldn’t graduate.”