Going into the game, the Vikings
were going to provide the Railroaders their best chance to avoid a winless league record. Both teams appeared evenly matched and had suffered similar bad luck. South Tahoe dresses even fewer players than Sparks. But it took almost an entire half for the hosts to breath consistent life into their crowd.
Trailing 21-6 with 2:05 to go before halftime, Sparks had to turn to its two-minute drill offense. It worked.
The Railroaders trekked 75 yards in a minute and a half. Quarterback Geo Vasquez found a wide-open Erik Garcia over the middle for a 15-yard touchdown reception. Garcia also took in the two-point conversion, sending the teams into the locker room with a 21-14 score.
“They did a really good job not getting down like they have in the past,” Sparks football coach Rob Kittrell said. “Defensively, we played an outstanding game, causing turnovers because offensively it was a struggle. I think it would have kept them believing without that touchdown, but it definitely helped.”
Sparks got off to a quick start but then stumbled to fall into the 15-point hole.
On the first drive of the game, it looked like South Tahoe would victimize the Sparks defense much like every other Railroaders opponent.
Following a sack on the first play from scrimmage, that pushed back the Vikings to their own 10, senior running back Jacob Stowell started running over and through Sparks. Stowell racked up 61 yards on South Tahoe’s next four plays to pick up three first downs, bringing the visitors to the Railroaders’ 31.
However, the opening drive stalled thanks to another Sparks sack. South Tahoe chose to go for it on fourth-and-10 but a high snap went over quarterback John Cefalu’s head and the Railroaders recovered at their own 48.
The Maroon and Gold took advantage of the good field position, but it looked like its trek downfield would be short-lived when Sparks was saddled with a fourth-and-2 at the Viking 30. A hard count by Vasquez got South Tahoe to jump across the line of scrimmage for a first down.
Three completions set up the home team at the 6, and Quinn Lightfoot took an end around into the end zone. The point after was blocked, leaving Sparks in the lead 6-0 with 1:16 left in the first quarter.
That’s when Sparks fans witnessed Stowell making a mockery of the defense. Stowell opened up the ensuing drive with a 34-yard run. Three rushes later, Stowell carried his team down to the Sparks 4.
After a false start penalty and a fumbled snap, Stowell took in a sweep around the right side for a 9-yard touchdown run. The extra point was good, putting the Vikes ahead on the scoreboard, 7-6.
South Tahoe’s defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs and scored touchdowns on its ensuing offensive drives.
The first play of the Vikings’ third drive went for six points as Stowell busted up the middle and made a cut to the outside, rumbling for 54 yards down the left sideline. The PAT made it 14-6 with 9:05 left in the initial half.
When the California school got the ball back, Stowell started the 94-yard scoring drive with four straight runs that took the Vikings from their own 6 to the Sparks 30. The last run left Stowell shaken up on the play as he lowered his head to run over one Railroader and used a stiff arm to bat away another before being pulled down from behind on a 44-yard run.
He was back on the field three snaps later and eventually took it in for his third TD of the night.
Stowell surpassed the 250-yard mark on the night on South Tahoe’s second possession after halftime, but Sparks forced a turnover on downs and regained momentum by traveling 53 yards, going all but six of those yards through the air. A 20-yard touchdown pass from Vasquez to Esteban Bravo tied the game at 21-21 at the 1:12 mark of the third quarter.
However, Stowell was noticeably limping in the second half, which slowed down the Vikings’ game dramatically.
“He was banged up. I don’t know if it was a knee or ankle, but his cuts were definitely not the same as they were on film or in the first half,” Kittrell said.
Then the defense swayed momentum even more. Harris picked off a pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, forging the Rail City squad into the 28-21 advantage. Harris also partially blocked a punt on South Tahoe’s first possession of the second half, but Sparks only managed nine yards and turned the ball over on downs at the Vikings’ 23.
The Railroader ‘D’ came through again after taking the 28-21 lead, recovering a fumble at the STHS 47.
The offense killed the clock until there was only 1:07 left in the game. Sparks punted the ball away. Stowell caught it on the run at the 12 and steamrolled all the way to the South Tahoe 36 with 56 seconds on the clock.
A screen pass to Tyler Nesbitt took the Vikings into Sparks territory at the 45. That’s when the wheels fell off.
South Tahoe tried some trickery that backfired. Stowell took a toss and tried to pitch it to Nesbitt on a reverse, but the ball went over his head and the Vikings lost 20 yards on the play.
A penalty pushed them back five more yards, and on ‘fourth-and-a-mile,’ Sparks defensive lineman L.B. Rose jumped on a fumbled pitch, sealing the victory.
Sparks improved to 1-6 overall and 1-5 in league, while South Tahoe fell to 2-5. The Railroaders host Dayton next week.
“I’m so happy for these kids. I’ve been saying all year what a great bunch of kids they are,” Kittrell said. “They deserve to see what it felt like to come out on the positive end. I’m so ecstatic for them.”