GONZALES, Calif. - It had been 15 years since Gonzales posted a winning record in the regular season. As a result, the Spartans' faithful off Highway 101 had not experienced a playoff game, much less one at home, since a first-round loss at Pioneer in 2003. They made up for lost time on Friday night, as Gonzales came from behind to down Saratoga, 54-49, to stay unbeaten for the season and alive in the Central Coast Section Division V playoffs.
Gilbert Payton Flores scored from 17 yards out, with 44 seconds remaining in Friday night's game, allowing the Spartans (11-0) to emerge victorious in a back-and-forth affair and advance to next weekend's semifinal round. The final touchdown was part of a huge effort for Payton Flores, who ran for 231 yards and a pair of scores in the win.
"The first word that comes to mind is electrifying," said Gonzales coach Art Berlanga. "It was what playoff football is about, with two league champions going head-to-head."
Spartans' quarterback Raul Morales had erased a late two-point deficit with his three-yard touchdown and two-point conversion, with just over four minutes left in the game, giving Gonzales a 48-42 advantage over the Falcons. But as he had done all season, Saratoga quarterback Payton Stokes brought his team back, putting the Falcons back in front a minute later with his four-yard touchdown run. The extra point gave Saratoga a 49-48 lead, but merely set the stage for Payton Flores' final jaunt to the end zone.
Gonzales led 34-28 entering the fourth quarter, but the final 12 minutes of the game featured six lead changes. Stokes threw for a touchdown in the first minute of the final quarter, but Morales then hit Dominic Emery for a 32-yard touchdown and a 40-35 Spartans' lead. That lead was short-lived, as Stokes connected with Max Muilenburg for a 28-yard score and a 42-40 Saratoga advantage, before Morales' go-ahead run. Morales finished the night with 103 passing yards, to go with a whopping 196 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
Aside from the huge offensive performance, Gonzales also got a big play defensively in the win, with Nael Vasquez returning a fumble for a touchdown.
"Coming back to win, this was something new to us," Berlanga said. "Saratoga is a quality football program, with a solid coaching staff and competitors. But our kids play hard every week, and more importantly, do not shy away from competition or a challenge. They are not afraid to fail or be great."
The quarterfinal victory came in front of a home crowd which had not witnessed a playoff game in its stadium since 2002, when the Spartans fell to Cupertino in the first round of play. It was the first playoff win for the Spartans since beating Willow Glen in the 1996 quarterfinals.
"Our home crowd was special. We had the whole town of Gonzales supporting us," Berlanga added. "Our community is something special, nothing like I have experienced at the high school level. It is a true Friday Night Lights type of atmosphere."