Antioch standout junior Najee Harris rushes for 390 yards and six touchdowns, but comes up inches short on what would have been a probable game-winning two-point conversion in heart-wrenching loss to Foothill of Pleasanton. The Falcons (12-0) now get to play De La Salle.
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The considerable shadow of Concord De La Salle in the CIF North Coast Section can often prevent the type of shining light that deserves to illuminate the accomplishments of other outstanding teams in the same section.
Case in point: No matter what happens in next week’s NCS Division I final between the state No. 1 Spartans and Foothill of Pleasanton, it should not diminish the remarkable game that the Falcons won 55-54 in Saturday’s semifinal over host Antioch.
Both teams began the night at 11-0 with Foothill at No. 12 in the state rankings and Antioch right behind at No. 13. And while the entire national brigade of recruiting analysts all know how phenomenal Antioch junior Najee Harris has been, Foothill happens to have a dangerous breakaway threat of its own in senior Isaiah Floyd.
“It was two heavyweights going back and forth throwing haymakers,” said Foothill head coach Matt Sweeney, who will return to the NCS finals for the first time since 2006. “They have a home-run hitter who is a threat every time he touches the ball and we finally stopped him on a two-point conversion by a couple of inches.”
The fourth quarter was played at a dizzying pace.
Trailing 41-24, the Panthers got to within 41-32 on a 44-yard run by Harris followed by a two-point conversion from Ryan Payne. Foothill QB Ben Wooldridge then suffered an interception by Antioch’s Jacob Rodriguez. That too was quickly followed by another Harris score, this one from seven yards out, plus another two-point conversion and with 7:52 left it was a 41-40 contest.
Clinging to that one-point lead, it looked as if Foothill might actually run out the clock. The Falcons converted one fourth down at midfield and then two plays later Floyd broke loose down the sidelines for a 47-yard touchdown.
After the PAT, Antioch also fumbled the ensuing kickoff. That set up a 14-yard TD pass from Josh Merryman to Matt Gates in which Merryman was tossed a lateral from Wooldridge. With just 2:38 remaining, that enabled Foothill’s lead to expand to 55-40.
With many Panther fans heading for the parking lot, however, Payne decided the prevent any others from leaving. He took the ensuing kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown. Antioch also had its timeouts to use so there was plenty of belief on the sidelines that the offense would get the ball back despite the 55-48 deficit.
On Foothill’s second play, those beliefs became reality when Dawon Boyd stripped the ball loose from Lloyd and it was recovered by the Panthers at the Foothill 22-yard line.
Harris went for 10 yards on his first carry after the fumble recovery and then scored on a 12-yard run. With 1:02 left, everyone in the stadium knew a two-point conversion try was next and that if successful it would put the Panthers on top 56-55.
Sweeney called a timeout before that two-point attempt and admitted later that he did “change our defensive front a little.” Harris was given the ball and tried to twist to his right in the middle of the line but didn’t get in. The ball did get popped loose, but one official appeared to be signaling the play was over beforehand.
All Antioch could do at that point was try to recover an on-kick. Foothill’s Ruben Mercado fell on it to ice the triumph.
Although Foothill will enter next week’s final with a better record than De La Salle, the Spartans (11-1) are defending CIF Open Division state champions and are coming off a 70-14 win on Friday over Pittsburg. Foothill also is the last unbeaten team, in fact, that DLS has played in a section final. The Falcons also were 12-0 heading into the 2006 title game and lost 33-7.
“It’s just going to be one play at a time, one quarter at a time,” said Mercado, who caught a 33-yard TD pass from Wooldridge in the first half. “Everybody knows it’s De La Salle and who they are. We’ll just have to lay it out on the line and go all out.”
Floyd certainly laid it all out on the line for the Falcons on this night. Lifted with a 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, he finished with 208 yards on 23 carries and scored four TDs.
Harris was reported with 390 yards and six TDs on 39 carries in another outing that will only make his reputation grow. He scored Antioch’s first two touchdowns on runs of 16 and 1 yard and his two-point conversions gave the Panthers a 16-14 halftime lead. Later, he also had and 80-yard run that prevented the Falcons from getting too far ahead.
Still, despite all of accolades he’s going to get in the next two months – including an almost certain finalist position for the Mr. Football State Player of the Year honor – Harris will always remember the few inches he didn’t get in one play at the end of a memorable game that meant a season-ending loss. Perhaps that lesson will be one he takes to the next level and beyond and makes him even hungrier for future teammates he will have.
Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports
Foothill deserves to play in a state championship game, like so many NCS D1 teams before them not named De La Salle.
Agreed. Same thing in the south when St. John Bosco beats Centennial (who could beat all other south teams) and Centennial done. Should be a private school section that just includes St. Mary’s, Serra, DLS, Cardinal Newman, Bellermine, St. Francis, Mitty, etc. In south nearly all top private schools knock each other out in the Pac 5 but a lot of good public schools get bounced too (like Foothill up north).
At least Centennial has been to a state championship. De La Salle is the only Nor Cal team to ever represent in the open division state championship and that aint changing anytime soon.