SAN FRANCISCO — Regardless of who won, there would be tears at the end of Friday afternoon’s game between the Lowell Cardinals and Burton Pumas.
With the teams playing for the fourth and final AAA playoff spot in their regular season finale, hoping to reach the postseason for the first time since before any of their seniors were enrolled in high school, the stakes were set for a memorable conclusion.
And memorable it was, with Ronald Pollick, who scored all three Lowell touchdowns, intercepting a tipped pass in the end zone with 20 seconds left to preserve a 22-20 victory and send the Cardinals to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
“Seeing the ball tipped up, I was just so happy,” Pollick said.
The interception led to an outpouring of emotions on the Lowell sideline over the following minutes once sophomore quarterback Reese Miller fielded the final two snaps cleanly and avoided getting pushed back into his own end zone. Celebrations included long, tearful embraces between many of the players and senior running back Brennan Nguy, who tore his ACL last week. The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on Miller, even though he’s spent half as much time in the program as most of the seniors, who will also be tasting their first playoff experience.
“It’s everything,” he said while struggling to collect himself. “To hear everything that people say to us at school because we’re Lowell football, right? Who are we? And we finally get this chance. This is my second year. Some of them have been taking it for four straight years. To do it for them, to do it for Brennan, who didn’t even get to play, it’s special.”
Support has been hard to come by for the Cardinals at a school well-known for top-notch academics, with football as an afterthought. They had gone just 8-37 over the prior five years, lacking support from not only the student body but even the administration.
“Last year, we had our last game against Lincoln taken away from us because they didn’t think we could hack ‘em, I guess,” head coach Danny Chan said. “Our administration said, ‘oh, they’re too tough for you.’ I had to have the principal come down to the field and talk to them because I couldn’t even explain it. The kids were mad, and they couldn’t even do anything about it. This (rematch) will be a nice makeup game.”
Lowell (5-4-1, 3-3 AAA) will travel to top-seeded Lincoln on Thursday in the semifinals, a reward for conquering the host Pumas amidst a full-throated homecoming crowd, the sort of support that the Cardinals rarely get to experience.
“We work so hard and no one sees it,” Miller said. “We had maybe one game where we felt like we had even a substantial crowd, and we get talked about because of our record.”
Miller and his teammates finally managed to write a different script on Friday afternoon, beating a team that is in the midst of a playoff drought of its own. Burton (4-5, 2-4), led by senior quarterback Alfonzo Smith, has made the playoffs just once in program history, getting bounced in blowout fashion in 2015.
“We tried our best the whole season. Some scores that shouldn’t have been they way they were, but this team, they were great,” Smith said after running for 127 yards on 12 carries. He ran for two touchdowns and threw for a third as his team opened up a 20-8 lead, but ultimately came up short.
On the final drive, trailing 22-20, Smith was hit hard on a pass that was tipped by a diving Jeremiah Hizon, who kicked it to himself in an attempt to grab what would have been the game-sealing interception. He had to briefly leave the game, with Jonah Mati taking over at quarterback.
“He got hit from under his ribs,” head coach Duane Breaux said. “He didn’t do enough to protect himself on that play.”
On the prior snap, Smith raced for a 32-yard gain, getting ruled out of bounds at the 20, though he had carried the ball all the way to the 5. His pleas for a horse-collar tackle not only went unrequited but ended up costing the Pumas 15 yards as he was flagged for arguing the play. Even with that flag and his injury, Burton wasn’t done.
Running back Samson “Pooka” Olomua, who ran 27 times for 150 yards, picked up 10 yards over the next two carries and Mati dove into the pile to convert fourth-and-inches at the 25 with 4:42 left. Two more Olomua runs moved the chains once again, and with Smith back in the game and lining up at receiver to take advantage of his 6-foot-1 frame, Mati threw a pass his way that drew a flag on the defense. Olomua then rumbled for another six yards and a first down with a minute left, setting Burton up at the 4 before Lowell finally made a stop in the backfield, with Lawrence Jiang wrapping Olomua up for a loss of nine. Mati dropped back on second-and-goal, and looking for Smith over the middle, Hizon tipped the pass up in the air and into the waiting arms of Pollick.
Pollick’s interception sealed a remarkable comeback for a Lowell team that was on life support midway through the third in a 12-point hole. Struggling to find traction on offense without Nguy, the Cardinals finally opened things up with a 19-yard pickup by Adrian Navarro, then cut the lead to five when Pollick scored from 30 yards out. They’d get the ball back at their own 45 with 31 seconds left in the third and orchestrate a methodical drive over the next five minutes, using a 23-yard run by Pollick to get into Burton territory and a 10-yard run by Benji Ng (10 carries-38 yards) to enter the red zone. Pollick, who ran for 107 yards on 15 carries, punched it in from two yards out for the lead with 7:45 left.
Burton wasn’t finished, though. A healthy dose of Smith and Olomua got the Pumas back into Lowell territory, and they had one last chance before Hizon and Pollick’s heroics.
It was that same combination that had led the hosts to a two-possession lead early in the third. The Pumas drove 92 yards over five minutes and 29 seconds to tie the game at 8, using a 13-yard scramble by Smith on fourth-and-10 at the Lowell 48 and a pair of substantial runs from Olomua before Smith finished the drive himself, scoring from seven yards out and connecting with Mati for a two-point conversion. A 51-yard Olomua carry in the final minutes of the first half set up Smith’s four-yard touchdown pass to Mati to put Burton up 14-8 at the break, and the lead doubled early in the third as Lowell was stopped on downs to start the half and Smith ran in a three-yard touchdown.
It was a stark contrast to the start of the game, which looked like a Lowell rout was in the making. A long return by Smith on the opening kickoff was snuffed out with a Zonglin Li interception, and completions from Miller to Jairo Archila and Jiang set up Pollick’s first score, a three-yard run with a two-point conversion to boot.
Balboa 15, Mission 7
The Buccaneers won a defensive struggle in a battle between two teams that had already secured playoff spots and were jostling for home field in next week’s rematch. They’ll meet at the exact same spot they did the first time, six days after the first contest. Balboa (5-5, 5-1) trailed at halftime as quarterback Raiden Thien-Jones threw three interceptions, including a 75-yard Julian Milton pick-six, but Jaziah Amataga’s four-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Anthony Artola’s two-point conversion pass to Ray Jones and Thien-Jones’ 18-yard touchdown run in the fourth earned the Buccaneers the second seed. Mission (4-5-1, 4-2) played without running back Noah Lee, shelved with a broken hand, but he’s expected to return next week.
Lincoln 46, Galileo 0
The Mustangs finished their second consecutive unbeaten run through the AAA, cruising past the Lions for a second year in a row. Luis Contreras got just six carries but found the end zone twice, including a 74-yarder, and finished with 149 yards, his second-lowest rushing total of the season as Lincoln (8-1, 6-0) forced a running clock. Andres Montoya scored on a 48-yard run, Tyree Cross added a touchdown of his own and quarterback Jonas Francovich hooked up with James Walsh for a pair of TDs, scoring on passes of 35 and 60 yards. It marked the Mustangs’ fourth shutout victory of the year, while Galileo (1-9, 1-5) was blanked for the seventh time.