Spanish Springs (4-2, 2-1 HDL) forced North Valleys to punt on the game’s opening possession and it could not have worked out much better for the visitors. Fleet-footed senior Sullivan Stevens found a blocking gap, sprinted through it and got his hands on the pigskin for a block. He then scooped up the football and bolted 35 yards into the end zone for a touchdown that helped the SSHS gridders to a 7-0 lead with 10:40 showing on the first-quarter clock.
“Our special teams coach Joe Imelli put together some good work to block that punt,” Cougars coach Scott Hare said. “A lot of work and a lot of scheming went into that. It wasn’t by mistake we blocked that.”
The Cougars defense held on the next possession and the Spanish Springs offense went right back to work — sort of. It looked like the visitors were forced three-and-out. Cougars punter Dom Smith lined up deep for a kick, but he was forced to try and run and salvage yardage after a bad snap. It worked out as Smith rambled 41 yards and picked up a first down.
Smith, who is also the Cougars starting tailback, rushed for 124 yards on 27 carries.
Later on the Cougars drive, quarterback Tanner Oates hooked up with Nick Lemons for a 24-yard gain to the North Valleys 16. Three plays later, Spanish Springs extended its lead to 10-0 when Brandon Pelfrey booted a 32-yard field goal at the 2:13 mark of the first quarter.
North Valleys (5-1, 2-1) answered with an 80-yard scoring drive that was keyed by a 51-yard pass-and-catch combination from quarterback Tim Herman to wide receiver Nick Palko. Herman picked up the score with a 1-yard TD plunge.
Spanish Springs nearly had the drive stopped. Just before Herman’s TD run, a pass fell incomplete for the Panthers on a fourth-and-3 play, but the Cougars were flagged for a pass interference, keeping the drive alive.
Spanish Springs wound up taking a 17-7 edge into the locker room at halftime when it added a touchdown at the 4:19 mark of the second quarter. Oates busted loose from the back field on a QB keeper and outraced North Valleys defenders to the end zone on a 35-yard scoring scamper.
The drive was helped by a 32-yard pass from Oates to Dominic Johnson.
“I just think Spanish Springs was physical, and they played hard” North Valleys coach Ty Gregg said. “We’ve made some plays in the past that we didn’t make tonight. Nothing they did surprised us. We just didn’t make plays and they did a lot of good things.”
Spanish Springs took its biggest lead of the conference clash midway through the third quarter. North Valleys was facing third-and-16 on its own 23 when Cougars defensive end Humberto Espinoza picked off a Herman pass on the sideline and cruised over the goal line from 26 yards out. The touchdown pushed the Cougars lead to 24-7 with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The hosts, who came into the game ranked first in one local northern Nevada poll, had some fight left. They scored on the ensuing drive. Herman found Palko streaking down the sideline for a 29-yard touchdown reception that narrowed the scoring gap to the final 24-14 margin.
Earlier in the drive, North Valleys converted on a fourth-and-two play near midfield. The Panthers also got 15 more yards after an unsportsmanlike conduct call went against the Cougars sideline following the spot on the fourth-and-2 conversion.
“I’m pleased with our game all around,” Hare said. “We blocked a punt. We returned an interception for a touchdown and our offense got some points. We beat the No. 1 team by 10 points. That’s big.”
The Spanish Springs defense rose to the occasion multiple times in the fourth quarter. The Cougars fumbled and Oates was intercepted in the last 12 minutes, but the Panthers were stifled at every turn and could not close the gap.
“Was our defense on the field for four games?” Hare quipped. “That’s what it seemed like the equivalent of. Our defense was just incredible. North Valleys averages 33 points a game. We held them to 14, and on the two scores they did get, there were some other factors.
“I believe our defense can play with and match up with anybody. Those guys were awesome tonight.”
Spanish Springs will prepare over the next week for its Homecoming game scheduled for Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Elko.