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It's been a steady climb up the hill for the Vista del Lago Eagles football team.
Now in their sixth season as a varsity program, the Eagles have improved every year, and with Saturday night's thrilling 28-21 win over Inderkum in the Division III semi-finals, Vista del Lago will make it's first appearance in a section championship.
"It's just nice knowing that the work we put in the last six years has paid off for us," said Vista del Lago head coach, Chris Jones. "Our buys battled tonight, and I just can't say enough about our players. They just continue to grow and develop and do the things we ask them to do and that's what makes an outcome like this awesome for us."
While making it to a section championship is new territory for the Vista del Lago football program, it's certainly nothing new for Jones who led the Oak Ridge Trojans to consecutive Division II titles back in 2002, 2003, and 2004.
Jones' offense has grabbed most of the headlines throughout the season, but it was the performance of the defense that was the talk of the team after the game.
"I've been telling people that our defense doesn't get enough credit," said Jones. "Our defense has just played phenomenal for the last six weeks, they've turned it up, and our seniors just continue to play and lead."
"Our line stepped up, our offense stepped up, but I think most of all our defense played really well tonight," said Vista del Lago sophomore quarterback, Matt Jimison. "They gave us a chance to comeback, gave us an opportunity to be able to do what we do."
It wasn't a typical Vista del Lago offensive game, down 7-3 to Inderkum at the half.
"We knew we didn't play our best football in the first half," said Jimison. "We were excited to come out and play a new game in the second half."
However, it was the third quarter where the Eagles found their rhythm.
Jimison (15 for 32, 184 yards, two touchdowns) connected with Colin McCargo on a 55-yard touchdown pass to go up 10-7, and then later in the third it was Jimison to Brad Rittenhouse for a 12-yard touchdown pass to put Vista del Lago back on top at 17-14 with 1:39 left in the third.
With Vista del Lago up 20-14, and Inderkum pinned back at it's own 25-yard line, Inderkum quarterback C.J. Spencer hit Larry Hardy for a 75-yard touchdown pass down the right sidelines, putting the Tigers back in the lead at 21-10 with 2:03 left to play.
In the final two minutes, Vista del Lago's defense swarmed the Inderkum offense time and again.
Led by the play of Chris "Bear" Grunsky (13 tackles, three sacks), Nick Rametta (12 tackles, one sack), Austin McGuire (10 tackles), and Andrew Schantz (nine tackles, interception), it was the defense that made the difference on this night.
"It's a really great feeling," said Grunsky. "It's the first time we've ever been to the third round if not sections, so it feels good.
Finally, with 22 seconds left to play in the game, running back Josh Pfeffer (25 carries, 114 yards) took a handoff up the middle and ran eight yards for what proved to be the game winning touchdown, before Jimison's pass to Rittenhouse for a two-point conversion sealed a 28-21 win.
"It was a crazy game," said Pfeffer. "It was a dog fight the entire time. We were facing a very explosive, powerful Inderkum offense, and our defense did a great job limiting their numbers and our offense was able to do their thing."
Vista del Lago will take on Oakdale in Friday's Division III Sac-Joaquin Section championship game at Lincoln High School in Stockton.
Last year Oakdale beat Vista del Lago, 49-7, in round two of the playoffs, but the Eagles believe this year will be different.
Said Jones, "We've got to match up with those guys again, and hopefully we're ready to roll this time. We're a little bit better, and a stronger program now than we were a year ago, and that's what we've all worked for."
"We're going to get a good shot to get back at Oakdale like they did to us last year," said Grunsky.
Despite what happens in the section championship, this group of Eagles' players has laid the groundwork for future teams.
Said Pfeffer, "It's amazing, we're a part of history. I'm going to look back at this forever."