Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter
For the first time in 21 years, the Fernley Vaqueros are league champions in football.
Zach Burns hit A.J. Kuha for the game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass with 6.5 seconds left as the Vaqueros beat Truckee 28-21 to clinch the regular season championship of the Northern 3A and the No. 1 seed for the Northern 3A playoffs.
The league championship is Fernley’s first since winning three consecutive from 1994-96.
“This week we were talking about making history,” senior quarterback Zach Burns said. “We made history tonight.”
The seeds of the championship may have been planted during a summer conditioning practice on July 25, then were fertilized during Fernley’s win at Fallon on Sept. 1.
After a particularly lethargic drill during that July 25 practice, assistant coach Jake McCullar lit into the Vaqueros.
“That’s the kind of effort that gets you sixth place and a road game in the playoffs,” McCullar bellowed that day, before ordering the team to do some extra running.
Several players said that sentiment was behind the work they did during the offseason.
“If you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to do things you’ve never done, and that’s what we’ve done,” Burns said. “We put in the work and reached things we’ve never done.”
After building a 20-0 lead Friday night, the Vaqueros were facing the very real prospect of seeing their championship hopes slip away, when the Wolverines took a 21-20 lead on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Bellon to Michael Doughty with 51.5 seconds left.
But several Fernley players said they knew when they walked on the field to take possession at their 32-yard line with 45.9 seconds left that they could go down and score, because they had driven 94 yards in the final three minutes for the winning touchdown at Fallon in the first league game of the season.
“When we walked onto the field, it was almost exactly like how we were in Fallon,” senior running back Willy Pritchard said. “So when we got on, we’re like, we know we can do this.”
“I was (confident) because I thought back to Fallon, and I just thought about how successful our two-minute offense really is and how we get it done up front when it really counts,” senior offensive lineman Lonnie Slapinski said.
On first down, Burns lofted a deep pass down the middle to A.J. Kuha, who was running down the field uncovered from his position in the left slot. Kuha made the catch for a 33-yard gain to the Truckee 35.
“We moved Aaron (Proctor) out to receiver,” Burns said. “He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands to make an impact. When he went out to receiver, three guys went out on him and left A.J. wide open.”
Burns then hit Proctor for a 9-yard gain to the Truckee 26. Truckee was called for an illegal contact penalty, then after Pritchard ran for one yard, Burns spiked the ball to stop the clock with 18.9 seconds left. Pritchard ran for seven yards to the Truckee 6, and after a timeout, it was Kuha, a junior, who made the biggest play of the season, on Senior Night.
Again, Kuha lined up on the left slot, with Proctor out wide to his left, and nobody covered Kuha as he found an open spot in the middle of the end zone.
“They weren’t covering me in the middle, so I just told him, throw me in the seam,” Kuha said. “Winning this league championship is good because it’s been a while for our seniors, so it’s good to give it to them.”
Early on, it didn’t look like the Vaqueros would need any late heroics.
Fernley took a 7-0 lead on the opening possession of the game, driving 68 yards in six plays, all runs, scoring on a 45- run around the left end by Proctor on an option pitch.
Truckee looked poised to answer on its first possession, driving to the Fernley 24 with a series of chunk plays, but Pritchard sacked Bellon and forced a fumble, which Shawn Gleason picked up and returned to the Truckee 46.
Fernley got a big third-down conversion when Zac Terra ran for 12 yards on third-and-8, then on third-and-10, Burns hit Russ Ortiz for an 18-yard gain. That drive culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run by Burns for a 13-0 lead with 1:48 left. When Truckee was called for a penalty on the extra point, moving the ball inside the 2-yard line, Fernley went for two, but Pritchard was stopped short of the goal line. Truckee turned the ball over again on its next possession, on an interception by Proctor at the Fernley 37.
The Vaqueros kept the ball on the ground again, getting a 33-yard run by Proctor and a personal foul against Truckee to move the ball to the Truckee 15. Four plays later, Burns scored on another 1-yard run for a 20-0 lead with 9:50 left in the second quarter.
Truckee finally got on the board on its next drive, going 80 yards in seven plays to cut the lead to 20-7 on a 23-yard touchdown run by Joel Estabrook with 6:55 left in the first half.
Fernley had a chance to extend its lead before the half, driving to the Truckee 10, but a delay of game penalty moved the ball back to the 15, and after two incomplete passes, a 30-yard field goal attempt by Cooper Henderson went wide right.
“We shot ourselves in the foot right before half,” coach Chris Ward said. “We should have had one more touchdown before half and we left those points on the field, and those would have been big.”
Fernley got as far as the Truckee 43 on its first possession of the second half before the drive stalled, and a bad snap on a punt sailed over Henderson’s head, giving Truckee the ball at the Fernley 16.
The Wolverines made the mistake hurt, with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Bellon to Joel Parisi to cut the lead to 20-14 with 3:19 left in the third quarter.
Fernley came up empty on its next drive, unable to convert on fourth down after reaching the Truckee 23.
Fernley got the ball right back, but went for it again on fourth-and-5 from the Truckee 46. Burns’ pass for Proctor was knocked away by a Truckee defender who appeared to grab Proctor from behind while reaching for the ball. No penalty was called, and the Fernley sideline was assessed an unsportsmanlike penalty protesting the noncall.
That gave Truckee the ball at the Fernley 40. On fourth-and-5 from the Fernley 21, the Wolverines pulled out a trick play, with Bellon running for an 8-yard gain on a pitch from another runner who had gotten the ball on a reverse.
Two plays later, Bellon hit Doughty with the go-ahead touchdown.
When Fernley took over at its own 32 after the kickoff, Ward said his hope was to get close enough to give Henderson a chance to try another field goal.
“I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t sure,” Ward said. “But when I saw A.J. Kuha going down the middle and got him the ball right there and a big chunk of yardage, we were able to get on that. We were getting warmed up, our snapper was getting going and our kicker was getting warmed up on his steps, so we were getting ready to go for a field goal.”
Instead, the Vaqueros found the end zone, and with it, the league championship.
“It was just amazing to see our whole crowd jump up and our band playing, and it’s just something I’ll never forget,” Slapinski said. “We haven’t won in 25 years so I guess it had to come down that way.”
Slapinski was one of the players who said the team was driven to prepare for this season by the frustrating way last season went.
“We came into last year thinking we were going to have the success that we’re having this year and we ended up getting embarrassed, so we worked hard, we pushed ourselves in the weight room this summer,” he said. “Our bond with this junior class is just amazing, and we just click.”
Fernley has won eight consecutive games after opening the season with a nonleague loss to Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco, and they can finish an undefeated league season when they play at Dayton next Thursday. After that, they will get a first-round bye in the playoffs, before hosting a home playoff game Nov. 9
“After that loss to Sacred Heart and coming back against Fallon with a minute left, we just have unlimited possibilities and I can’t wait to see where we go,” Slapinski said.