Five minutes after his game, Monterey Trail High School coach T.J. Ewing wiped his forehead and released a priceless grin, uttering the words that instantly injected a source of much-needed athletic pride into the school, “We’re in. We’re in.”
Ewing, pausing in between sentences during his post-game interview to listen to score updates from the public address announcer, reacted to Monterey Trail clinching the Delta River League’s third seed.
Two weeks ago, Ewing was just hoping his varsity football team could somehow snap a five-game losing streak. Now, he is preparing for the program’s first-ever appearance in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
At 3-7 overall Monterey Trail will have the fewest wins of any of the eight teams in the North bracket. In fact, they will be the only team with a sub .500 record.
But that doesn’t matter to Ewing.
Needing a win in the season finale last Friday and losses by Jesuit and Sheldon, each of those scenarios panned out. Monterey Trail clinched the league’s final spot with a 32-24 win over Florin, combined with Jesuit’s 20-7 loss to Pleasant Grove and Folsom’s 35-32 win over of Sheldon.
“We weren’t at all depressed with our record,” said Ewing, despite winning just one game in the first two months of the season. “We knew there were three teams getting in, and we still had a chance. We fought and believed. They did it.”
Monterey Trail is the first school from either the Delta River League or Delta Valley Conference to qualify for the section playoffs below .500. The fact they had a chance to reach the postseason is remarkable in itself considering they finished preseason 1-4, had a five-game losing streak and did not win consecutive games until the final two weeks of the regular season.
As Florin head coach Mike Morales said, “they picked the right time to peak.”
Monterey Trail put itself in this position by shocking Jesuit with a 20-7 win in Week 9. That win, considered to be the biggest in school history, ensured Folsom of a playoff spot and forced a three-way free-for-all between Monterey Trail, Jesuit and Sheldon in the season finale.
Although Monterey Trail needed the most help, they seemingly had the likeliest scenario. Sheldon appeared to be overmatched by Folsom, even though it wasn’t until a late interception proved costly for Sheldon, and Jesuit’s offensive woes became a constant theme in the final month as they managed only 14 points combined in those two games, including seven in a road loss to Pleasant Grove.
“Football is such an important event for high schools. It’s only a single game a week,” said Ewing, describing the impact of his team reaching the playoffs for the school’s morale. “It’s so hard (to qualify). You don’t get a second shot to play them a second game. Wait the whole year, what? You have to wait the whole year to play them again.
“It’s a shot in the arm for our students,” he added. “We needed this. This is huge for the school.”
This isn’t the first playoff experience for Ewing. He won a section title at San Mateo High School in 2003 before relocating to Monterey Trail.
Ironically, Monterey Trail finished with its best-ever record at 5-5 last season, but did not qualify for the playoffs. One year later they managed two fewer wins and still snuck into the North’s eight-team field.
Clinching a playoff spot did not come without a stressful fourth quarter. Despite a seemingly comfortable 25-0 lead, Monterey Trail needed to recover an onside kick in the final minute of regulation to seal its third home win of the season.
Florin put a kink into the premature celebration by scoring 24 fourth-quarter points. They scored 16 straight on a 35-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tim Okunev to Rico Herring and Okunev had a fumble recovered in the end zone by Devon White.
James Kilson added both two-point conversions to cut the deficit to 25-16.
Monterey Trail answered with a time-consuming drive that drained more than 5 minutes off the clock and culminated with a two-yard touchdown run by Sedale Hunter with 2:23 left.
Hunter’s third two-yard touchdown run of the game came one play after Florin was flagged for defensive pass interference on fourth-and-15.
“We knew that if we didn’t keep them on their side of the 50, they would go for it every time,” said Morales about Monterey Trail converting on all four of its fourth-down attempts, including twice for touchdowns – a two-yard run by Hunter and a five-yard run by James Peterson – in the first half. “That’s their game plan. They’ve done it to us the last couple of years.”
Florin regrouped quickly and closed to within one possession after Okunev’s 22-yard touchdown strike to Herring. Okunev ran for the two-point conversion to trim the deficit to eight, 32-24, with 52.9 seconds.
Monterey Trail recovered the ensuing onside kick and subsequently kneeled down to run out the clock.
“The kids realized it’s not over until it’s over,” said Ewing. “What I like is that when we put in another player there isn’t a dropoff. That’s been huge for us.”
Morales could almost envision himself in the same position as Ewing. After all, it was Florin that seemed destined for the playoffs after a 4-2 start.
But, after being forced to forfeit all four of those wins due to an ineligible player, Florin did not win a game the rest of the season.
“It was a microcosm of life. It was a roller coaster,” Morales said. “I missed a game to be with my dad who was sick; we had a big win against Pleasant Grove and then had it taken away from us; and then we played Jesuit tough and then D.K. (David Kilson) got hurt and we had a rough second half.”
The adversity inflicted on Florin never caused them to quit, likewise with Monterey Trail notwithstanding a 1-7 record entering November.
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