The La Cañada High football team had not won a season-opening game since 2016, the first year coach Jason Sarceda took over.
It looked like the trend would continue for the Spartans in their first game against Hacienda Heights Wilson in an away nonleague contest on Thursday.
La Cañada trailed by 11 points at halftime and only amassed four minutes of possession in the second quarter, as the offense tried to figure things out as a unit.
However, a three-minute sequence changed the outcome for the Spartans, highlighted by a fumble that led to a 63-yard touchdown pass, long with a crucial sack in the waning moments.
Behind sophomore quarterback Brandon Reese and junior wide receiver Justin Zoltzman, La Cañada found its stride and cleaned up its second-half mistakes to start the season with a 17-14 nonleague victory.
“Our guys came out and competed,” Sarceda said. “We stuck with it and we believed. We believed we could do it. It was rough. We had a lot of difficulties and penalties early on, but we rallied up and we got it done.”
With 2:28 remaining in the game, Zoltzman somehow caught a pass from Reese that bounced off of two Wilson defenders to score a 63-yard touchdown and give La Cañada a 17-14 lead.
“I’m speechless, man, but play-makers make big plays at the right time,” Zoltzman said. “That was all God, man. He had my back.”
Then, with 44 seconds left, Reese throttled his way through the Wilson offensive line and sacked Wildcats quarterback Isaiah Espinoza to force a turnover on downs and seal the win.
“It was a strong-side blitz and it was wide open. There was a big hole and I hit it,” Reese said.
Reese completed 11 of 25 passes for 200 yards with a touchdown pass, while Zoltzman caught seven passes for 110 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
Wilson quarterback Isaiah Espinoza recorded 135 passing yards on 12-of-35 passing and 119 rushing yards in 12 carries.
The Spartans got things started quickly with eight running plays for 39 yards in its opening drive. Though La Cañada was on the cusp of scoring a touchdown the Spartans had to settle for a 25-yard field goal in which kicker Andy Kozanian nailed to give the visitors a 3-0 lead at 8:34 in the first.
However, things quickly shifted to Wilson as the Wildcats spent the majority of the first half with possession.
With 41 seconds left in the first quarter, the Wildcats took a 7-3 lead on an 11-yard run from Eric Kang. In all, the teams combined for seven penalties on the drive.
The second quarter saw La Cañada punt four times and only could maintain possession for just four minutes. At the end of the first half, Reese completed just two passes on 10 attempts for 29 yards.
Meanwhile, Wilson added to its lead on a 13-yard touchdown run from Julian Tijerina to make it 14-3 with 6:30 left in the half.
“We had to find the holes in ourselves and we had to fill them,” Zoltzman said. “We had to dig deep for this one, man. We have to dig deep and play as a family. It’s all God.”
The Spartans’ offense came alive in its opening drive of the second half when Reese went in on a 1-yard run to cut the Wilson lead to 14-10.
Reese followed that up with a 21-yard pass and a 43-yard throw to senior Walker Baggett (two catches, 64 yards) to further propel the offense in the fourth quarter.
“You’ve seen it,” said Sarceda of his quarterback. “You’ve seen our boy. We’ve got three years with the man, too.”
Though the Spartans were unable to capitalize on 37- and a 39-yard field goal attempt early on in the final quarter, the La Cañada defense forced a fumble on its 23 yard line with 3:03 left to turn the tide.