Menlo-Atherton senior linebacker Will Preston didn't try to guess what play was coming with four seconds remaining in the Central Coast Section Large School Division championship game Friday night at Foothill College. He only knew that with the Bears clinging to a 39-33 lead over Wilcox and the ball on the three-yard line, the game was on the line.
The Chargers used a quick handoff to running back Anthony Herrera, similar to the plays that had gained the Chargers 345 yards leading up to that final play. This time Preston burst through the line and hit Herrera under his shoulder pads, knocking him back to the line of scrimmage. The thunderous hit ended the game and sent helmets flying in celebration and students streaming on to the field.
"I just reacted," Preston said. "I saw the handoff and got in to make the tackle. I had no idea what was coming."
While Preston's defensive heroics provided the dramatic ending and delivered the title to the Bears (10-2-1), there were plenty of other big plays leading up to the final moment.
Smith returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, the first an 88-yard return in the first quarter that he first fumbled back to the six-yard line before racing into the end zone. Eric Stanske's extra point gave M-A its first lead, 13-12.
Smith struck again on the second half kickoff, fielding a short kick on the run at the 24 and bursting through the coverage for a 76-yard score.
The second biggest stop of the game occurred on Wilcox' next possession. The Chargers had scored on three of their four first half possessions and M-A was struggling to solve the Veer offense. But Mike Newsome pounced on a Herrera fumble and gave M-A the ball at the Charger 33.
Six plays later, quarterback Turner Baty completed his only pass of the game -– a perfectly lofted pass to the back of the end zone where Sam Knapp put two tip-toes down to complete the eight-yard score.
M-A's two quick second-half scores gave the Bears a 26-18 lead but Wilcox wouldn't go away.
The Chargers answered with a 19-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to tie it. M-A came back with a three-play scoring drive, highlighted by a 64-yard run by Rod Nash and capped by a four yard run by Preston to make the score 33-26.
M-A had a chance to put the game away after forcing Wilcox to go three-and-out, but fumbled on the goal line to Wilcox. The Chargers capitalized with an 80-yard march to tie the game at 33 with 6:12.
M-A was able to answer again. Alternating runs between Smith, Nash and Preston, the Bears drove from their 41 to the Wilcox 5. Facing a fourth- and-goal situation, M-A coach Phillip Brown elected to give the ball to Nash, who skirted the right side for a touchdown.
"I have confidence in our guys," Brown said. "They can score. They made the play."
All that was left was 1:13, enough time for Wilcox to make it to the three, and just enough time for Preston to make his play.
The pressure-packed game was familiar to M-A. It had won five of its first nine games by three points or less and needed double-overtime to beat Woodside in last week's semifinal.
"We've sweated every game," Brown said. "We spoke at halftime about how many close games we've been through and if something went wrong or we got behind, we knew we could come back. We had been there before."
This time, it was just a matter of holding on.
CCS Large School Championship
At Foothill College
Wilcox 12 6 8 7 -- 33
Menlo-Atherton 13 0 20 6 -- 39
W -- Pohahua 1 run (kick failed)
MA -- Baty 1 run (kick failed)
W -- Pohahua 6 run (kick failed)
MA -- Smith 88 kick return (Stanske kick)
W -- Murphy 2 run (pass failed)
MA -- Smith 76 kick return (Stanske kick)
MA -- Knapp 8 pass from Baty (kick failed)
W -- Sagote 19 pass from Murphy (Chapman pass from Murphy)
MA -- Preston 2 run (Stanske kick)
W -- Herrera 6 run (Duenas kick)
MA -- Nash 5 run (kick failed)
RUSHING: Wilcox, Herrera 20-134, Murphy 16-121, Pohahua 16-70, Zendejas 3-10, Lucas 1-0. M-A, Preston 15-105, Nash 12-96, Smith 9-62, Baty 4-(minus-4). Totals: Wilcox 56-345; Menlo-Atherton 40-259.
PASSING: Wilcox, Murphy 7-17-0-111. M-A, Baty 1-1-0-8.
RECEIVING: Wilcox, Chapman 2-39, Ryans 2-32, Sagote 1-19, Lucas 1-12, Johnson 1-9. M-A, Knapp 1-8. Totals: Wilcox 7-111; Menlo-Atherton 1-8.
Records: Wilcox 8-5; Menlo-Atherton 10-2-1