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Titans defense shuts down Panthers twice in final three minutes

Poway ended an 11-game winless streak against Vista with a 27-23 win Friday night – but it wasn’t easy. The Titans jumped out to a big lead, capitalized on Panthers’ special teams mistakes and hung on for the win in a very entertaining contest.

“It’s great for our kids,” said Poway head coach Damian Gonzalez. “They’ve been working hard all year and for them to finally put it together against a phenomenal opponent like Vista – it’s exciting. It was a big win and it’s been a long time since Poway has beaten a Vista team.”

Poway did not take long to get on the board, as Brett Thomas returned the game’s opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. After a Vista missed field goal, the Titans scored again when running back Nick Ricciardulli took a short pass from quarterback John Jensen-Johnson and raced 45 yards down the sideline to give Poway a 14-0 lead seven minutes in.

A 50-yard Ricciardulli touchdown run put Poway ahead by 21 with 3:56 left in the half. Poway’s star running back finished with 97 yards on 15 carries and caught two passes for 53 yards but was slowed down in the second half.

“I thought we did a great job on Ricciardulli,” said Vista head coach Dan Williams. “He pops one on us – he’s a great back.”

Ricciardulli’s second touchdown of the game put Vista on the ropes and threatened to turn the contest into a blowout. But the Panthers responded, taking some momentum into the locker room with a three-yard touchdown run by quarterback David Fisher with 1:07 left in the second quarter.

Though his team was up 14 points at halftime, Gonzalez did everything but pat his team on the back during the break.

“I actually went in at halftime and ripped them like I never had before. That was the first time I had to chew into them, just because I felt like we were getting soft,” Gonzalez said. “Tensions were high and people were tight at that time.”

Justified was Gonzalez’s halftime concern, as Poway could not stop Vista from methodically taking the opening drive of the second half down the field. Fisher capped the nearly seven-minute drive with a three-yard touchdown run to pull the Panthers within a score.

Fisher finished the game 13-of-24 passing for 195 yards and added 70 yards on the ground. Running back Jordan Alexander led the Panthers in rushing with 28 carries for 148 yards.

Following Fisher’s touchdown, Vista’s defense forced a three-and-out and momentum had shifted the Panthers’ way. All that momentum was lost, however, when Vista’s Jordan Alexander muffed the ensuing punt and Poway fell on the ball at the Vista 25-yard line. Three minutes later, Thomas made a great catch on an eight-yard fade pass from Jensen-Johnson to stretch Poway’s lead back to 27-14 just before the end of the third quarter.

“If you look at it, we give up 14 points on special teams,” Williams said. “Is that the difference in the ballgame? Absolutely.”

Vista bounced back with a score early in the fourth quarter to make it a six-point game. From there, the game belonged to Poway’s defense.

After the Titans missed a 40-yard field goal with 7:21 to play, the Panthers marched all the way down the field and had the ball first and goal at Poway’s nine-yard line. Three plays later, Vista faced a fourth and goal from the one-yard line.

On the fourth down play, Fisher faked a handoff to Ofisa Kose and tried to score himself. But Poway’s defense was not fooled and a host of Titans kept Fisher short of the endzone – so many that neither Gonzalez nor defensive lineman Garrett Trainor knew who made the first hit on Vista’s quarterback.

“It was a lot of guys,” Trainor said. “We had so much surge coming up through the middle.”

Following the goal line stand, Poway’s offense was stopped in three plays. Facing a punt from their own endzone with 1:30 left, Gonzalez elected to take the safety instead of kicking it away. Thomas took the long snap and ran around the back of the endzone, running 14 seconds off of the clock.

“We wanted to take as much time as we could and Brett ran around there and was scaring me a little bit,” Gonzalez said.

The decision to take the safety paid off. After a long free kick put Vista at their own 43-yard line, Fisher threw four straight incomplete passes to give the ball back to Poway and send Vista (3-4, 0-2 Palomar) towards their second-straight loss to open league play.

After losing seniors from last year's team and facing injuries in the beginning of the season, Poway (4-3, 2-0) is now starting to play like defending section champs. For the Titans, it couldn’t be happening at a better time.

“We’re definitely hitting our stride right now,” Trainor said. “Tonight this has been our best game yet, playing against one of the best teams we’ve played.

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