The California Pintos' quest for a Tri-County Conference title continued Friday night when they traveled to Eldon for a showdown with the Eldon High School Mustangs.
Entering the matchup, both teams had followed inverse patterns throughout the first six weeks of the season. California entered the game with a record of 4-2, while Eldon came into the game at 2-4. Since 2010, the Pintos and the Mustangs had met 11 times, with the Pintos going 6-5 against the Mustangs during that span.
At the final whistle, that head-to-head record still favored the Pintos — California snagged a 35-28 victory to improve to 5-2 with districts fast approaching.
Friday night's game was the first time all season that the Pintos played on a grass field. It had rained earlier in the day at Victor Field in Eldon, and the grass field was covered in mud. The conditions of the field turned out to be a factor as the game wore on. The wide receivers would find it difficult to hold on to the ball in the first half. With both teams' passing games facing trouble due to the slick conditions, the run game took center stage early on the night.
After holding California to a three-and-out on their first possession, Eldon quickly took full advantage and scored the first points of the game on a 47-yard touchdown run by senior running back Bryce Veach on third-and-short. The Pintos' offense re-took the field and again found themselves in a third-and-long. This time, they were able to convert the third down and rode the hot hand of quarterback Calen Kruger into the red zone. A few plays later, the Pintos tied the game when Enoch Dunnaway ran the ball into the end zone on a 3-yard run.
The rest of the first half saw both teams fight to a standstill. Eldon gained the upper hand in the running game as the Mustangs carried the ball into Pintos' territory twice. The first time, Eldon had the ball on the Pintos' 17-yard line and the Pintos held them to a turnover on downs. The second time, the Mustangs held the ball for a possession of more than six minutes and were on the verge of taking the lead with a first-and-goal play on the Pintos' 2-yard line.
California's defense held strong yet again, however. With their backs pushed deep into the corner, the Pintos pulled off a stunning stop, pushing the Mustangs back to the 6-yard line and force the Mustangs into another turnover on downs in the red zone. The first half ended in a 7-7 tie.
When the second half kicked off, the Pintos knew they had to keep the Mustangs out of the end zone while trying to put points on the board themselves. While both teams had been shackled on offense in the first half, the second half turned out to be the polar opposite as both teams traded touchdowns throughout.
Every time California put points on the board, the Mustangs always found a way to get those seven points back. But there was a striking difference between those scoring possessions — while the Mustangs used the clock to put the pace of the game in their favor, the Pintos scored touchdowns within three plays every time they took over in possession. After struggling on offense in the first half, Pintos senior Trevor Myers caught touchdown receptions of 40 and 63 yards in the second half.
With the game tied 28-28 with just more than five minutes left to play, the Pintos' offense trotted back on to the field looking to take the lead for the fourth time in the second half. On the first play of the drive, Calen Kruger faked a hand-off to Enoch Dunnaway and ran into a wide-open field, taking it all the way to the end zone on a 51-yard run to give the Pintos a 35-28 lead.
But the Pintos still needed one more stop to secure the victory. After Eldon failed to convert on a fourth-and-11 with 1:40 to go, the Pintos rode off into the sunset the 35-28 winners against the Mustangs.
Pintos head coach Seth Womack and his staff knew it was going to be a tough game to play, especially in a place that had been a problem for other teams this season. Womack said he was very proud of the toughness his team showed when they were facing both their own fatigue and a dynamic Mustangs team.
"We knew coming in it was going to be a dogfight and we were going to have to play our very best, and at times we didn't tonight," Womack said. "But, I mean, our kids are resilient and they bounced back whenever they needed to and they made plays. We got into it and here we are."
Eldon did have an advantage over California in total plays (78-58), rushing yards (311-124) and total yards (422-319). But the stops the Pintos' defense forced in their own territory proved to be one of the biggest differences between victory and defeat. Womack and his team know how it feels to come up short that close to the end zone, and he said he was very satisfied with how they made Eldon experience that same feeling.
"That's a demoralizing feeling when you're down inside the 5 and you don't score; that's a punch to the gut and you just can't get your air back," Womack said. "And I've got to get credit to Eldon. They rebounded pretty well from that and kept fighting, and their kids are tough, scrappy kids. For a 2-5 team, heck, they're great. They're a good team."
The victory came on the heels of a tough week for the Pintos, as they lost senior running back Tyler Patterson to a season-ending ankle injury and had to find a way to win without him. But stepping up to help Enoch Dunnaway in the running game was junior Ian Peterson, who made a solid contribution to the team's success despite not playing as many snaps as his backfield partner.
"Ian did a great job. He came in that first half and he pounded when we needed it and he gave us a heck of a look," Womack said. "We didn't get to see him very much in the second half, but he's going to be a terrific running back for us. I'm excited about his future."
The Pintos are currently tied with Blair Oaks for third place in the conference standings with two weeks remaining in the regular season. Next week, California is back on the road to play the undefeated Hallsville Indians, who defeated Blair Oaks 56-51 last week. Womack and his team know just how difficult a test lays ahead of them next week, but he said they will look to come into Hallsville and put an end to the Indians' perfect season.
Part of successfully achieving that task will be bringing along a raucous group of visiting Pintos fans, he said.
"Their defense needs to be stopped and we need to be able to penetrate and make some plays. They came into tonight 5-0 and they're 5-0 for a reason and not by mistake," Womack said. "Just come out and be loud. Come up north and travel for us and be supportive. We're going to need everything in the kitchen sink to beat these guys. It's going to be a tough one."