By CLAIRE CRUZ, Special to the Star
SANTA MARIA — It’s been a few years since Santa Maria got to celebrate a victory over district foe Three Rivers.
Despite a valiant effort, the Cougars lost for the seventh straight time to the Bulldogs, 28-13 on Friday night.
“I was proud of the way we fought. We just made too many mistakes against a good team,” Santa Maria coach Israel Gracia said. “We played tough, things just didn’t go our way tonight.”
Three Rivers leaned heavily on the run for much of the first half. Senior quarterback Brandon Conn rushed for the first score of the game after recovering his fumbled snap. The point-after-attempt was blocked to give the Bulldogs an early 6-0 lead.
Santa Maria, on the other hand, struggled to establish a ground game and instead found its success through the air. Early in the second quarter, senior Nathaniel Rodriguez hit senior Albert Villarreal for a big play on fourth down to set up first-and-goal.
After three rushes with minimal gain, Rodriguez again dropped back and delivered a high toss to the deep left corner of the end zone. Senior Jesse Ortiz timed his jump perfectly to reach over the defender and snag the ball, and tip-toed inbounds for the score.
Trailing 7-6 with halftime quickly approaching, Three Rivers started testing the Cougars’ corners. In less than two minutes, Conn hit sophomore running back Zach Davis and senior Kyle Davis for two touchdown passes. Santa Maria stopped both two-point conversion attempts but still went into the locker room trailing 18-7.
“We’ve been trying to be more balanced (offensively) this year and we did a good job of it,” Three Rivers coach Arturo Lozano said.
Much of the third was defined by penalties, turnovers and a lack of offensive rhythm by both teams. But late in the quarter, Rodriguez connected with Ortiz again to decrease the deficit to one score.
Santa Maria kept the momentum rolling with a huge goal-line stop, but an injury to junior lineman Joshua Gonzalez caused the offensive line to break down and the Bulldogs sacked Rodriguez for a safety.
Three Rivers pounded the ball and the clock down to less than one minute on its ensuing drive, which was capped by a rushing touchdown from Conn and the only successful two-point conversion of the night.
“We know our goal, which is to win a district championship, is still out in front of us,” Gracia said. “We have four games left, and we’re going to use this game and learn from it and keep going.”