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Panthers hold off rival Pirates in battle of section’s elite

VISTA – Meeting for the first time in three years, Vista and Oceanside added a thrilling chapter to their North County rivalry on Friday night. The top-ranked Panthers thwarted a late Oceanside comeback attempt to beat the third-ranked Pirates 27-21.

“It was everything we expected,” said Vista head coach Dan Williams. “I figured it would be a lot closer than that.”

Vista (4-0) led by 13 with just less than three minutes left when Oceanside quarterback Tofi Pao Pao connected with receiver Demario Coleman down the sideline for a 52-yard touchdown. After the score, the Pirates (2-2) opted to attempt an onside kick that they would recover.

“We had to go for it, no question,” Oceanside head coach John Carroll said about the onside kick. “We were playing inconsistently on defense and we had some tired guys that were dinged up. We had to take our shot right then.”

Oceanside drove the ball down all the way to the Vista 6-yard line, where they faced a fourth-and-3 with 1:14 left. After three straight timeouts, the Pirates rolled out a halfback fly pass, but Vista’s defense wasn’t caught off guard.

“We called that in our defensive huddle – fly pass,” Williams said. “I thought our kids were ready and prepared for that.”

On the play, Pirates’ receiver Nate Small took the Pao Pao pitch, rolled right and with nowhere to go changed directions and heaved a pass towards the endzone. Vista defensive back Stefan McClure won the jump ball over Coleman, picking off the desperation pass to seal the victory for the Panthers.

“We just had to suck it up and give everything we got,” McClure said. “We knew that play would make the game. We get a stop right there, we go home, we can knee it out and get that victory sneak. It was good to go.”

Trailing 14-10 at halftime, Vista took control of the hard-hitting game in the third quarter. The Panthers took the opening drive of the second half 80 yards in six plays, capped off when quarterback Christian Gallardi swung the ball out to McClure, who found the endzone from 7 yards out.

“The O-line was opening up some giant holes, running backs were running for daylight and everything like that,” McClure said. “It was really great.”

Later in the third quarter, Vista linebacker John Palmer sacked Pao Pao and forced a turnover near midfield that led to another Panthers’ score. With 2:56 left in the period, Shakeel Marshall ran for a 16-yard score to give Vista a 24-14 lead.

“A lot of players stepped up tonight and it was great,” Kose said.

While Vista got rolling, Oceanside’s offense struggled in the third quarter. Kose intercepted Pao Pao late in the quarter, which lead to a Vista field goal.

“You’ve got a sophomore quarterback going against a really good football team. He made some great plays, he made some not so great plays,” Carroll said. “The exciting thing is he put us right back in the football game and gave us a chance to win.”

Vista stopped Oceanside on downs midway through the fourth quarter and ran nearly four minutes off the clock before having to punt the ball back to the Pirates with 3:07 left. It took Oceanside 25 seconds to cut into the Vista lead and even less time to get the ball back.

“We faced adversity and our team just fought it out and came out on top,” McClure said.

For Vista, the win fully justifies the No. 1 ranking they’ve had since the preseason. The Panthers notched a quality victory over Mira Mesa in their opener, but hadn’t beaten an elite team until upending Oceanside.

“Everybody has underestimated us because we haven’t played a top notch team like Oceanside,” Kose said. “Tonight is a big night for us, to show everybody that we are a good team and we deserve to be on top.”

Oceanside’s loss was their first defeat at the hands of a San Diego Section team since 2007. The Pirates looked good in stretches but ultimately weren’t consistent enough to beat Vista.

“We like to play Vista,” Carroll said. “It’s a great, positive rivalry.”

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