EUREKA - First and 10, at the Del Norte High 10-yard line. Warriors quarterback Dylan Pease dropped back a short distance and looked to his left. He expected to find junior wide receiver Nathan Porter on a short slant.
Porter, fighting through Eureka High's man coverage, did not make it to the spot where Pease threw the ball. Instead, it hit Loggers defensive back Adam Vang in the chest.
Vang dropped the ball.
The Del Norte sideline let out a loud sigh of relief. The Warriors were still alive with two minutes and change to go.
Trailing 20-18, Pease and the Warrior offense orchestrated a drive after their close call. The Warriors had stopped Eureka on a 4th-and-11 and had momentum on their side. The partisan Albee Stadium crowd - right behind the Del Norte sideline - attempted to get into the ears of the players.
Pease converted two first downs on quarterback runs. He passed for two others, a 14-yarder to Chad Bell and a 12-yarder to Napooi Shorty. On 1st-and-10 from the Loggers' 38, Pease looked to his left and threw to Porter on a short slant.
Porter didn't make it to the spot. The ball hit Vang in the chest.
This time, Vang secured his second interception of the night and ran 50 yards the other way.
Eureka 20, Del Norte 18. Final.
"We were just going a little too quick," Warriors wide receiver/linebacker Aaron Fitch said. "We didn't
really think to stop and slow down. We had time, but we were moving so fast, trying to pull the trigger too much."
Del Norte (2-5 overall, 1-3 Humboldt-Del Norte Big 5 League) had fallen behind 20-0 with eight minutes left in the second quarter before roaring back in the second half on Saturday. Losing in such a manner, on the road to a hated rival, was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Warriors players and coaches.
"We've got to play football in the first and second half," Del Norte linebacker Robin Pearce observed.
Indeed, the Loggers' (4-4, 2-0) first-half lead could be distilled into three big plays - and the Warriors' slow response to each of them.
Eureka running back Jacob Gordon burst through the Del Norte defense for a 44-yard run on the Loggers' opening drive that set up a Marcus Finney 3-yard touchdown run. Daniel Raxa's two-point conversion run gave Eureka an 8-0 lead.
Five minutes later, Loggers quarterback Alexis Robinson hooked up with Gordon on a 91-yard touchdown pass. Gordon beat the Warriors' secondary down the field on a play-action fake. Finney broke a 67-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Another game, another early lead for the Del Norte opponent.
"That's just sick," head coach Ray Rook said. "That's what we always do."
The Warriors responded after the third Loggers touchdown with one of their own, as Jordan Carpenter rumbled into the end zone from a yard out. (Porter's extra-point attempt went wide left.)
Eureka drove down the field on its ensuing possession, but on a 4th-and-1 from the Del Norte 1-yard line, Robinson fumbled the snap and the Warriors regained control.
The second half started out with a defensive stop for Del Norte, followed by an offensive three-and-out. Rook called for a fake punt, and Fitch found a cutback lane that enabled him to run 52 yards to paydirt.
Pease overthrew Fitch in the end zone on the two-point attempt, but the Warriors were back within striking distance.
"My line gave me a wide-open hole," Fitch said. "I almost didn't get touched until the goal line. I knew my family had my back."
Del Norte sophomore Kevin Anderson recovered a fumble on the following Eureka possession - his second in two games at the varsity level - but the Warriors' drive stalled. Fitch punted the ball down to the 2-yard line.
Robinson pitched the ball to Finney, who was not expecting to receive it, on the first play of the drive. Pearce came up with the ball after an extended scrum.
Touchdown, Del Norte.
"I was doing my assignment and I saw the dude bobbling the ball," Pearce said. "I knew I had to get to it."
However, the Warriors were flagged for excessive celebration after the touchdown, assessed on the extra point. Pease could not connect with Fitch for the crucial two points.
"The excessive celebration penalty made the extra point a lot more difficult," Rook said. "If we (were) in position to convert, it's a tie game. That's the difference."
Despite what unfolded on the field in the final minutes, the Warriors on the sideline believed that the game was theirs to be won.
"I was completely impressed with the way the kids came out and refused to lose the football game," Rook said.
Ultimately, the game served as a microcosm for the 2012 Warriors' season: Four of their five losses began as early deficits that proved insurmountable.
"Same old story," Rook said.
Fortuna comes to Mike Whalen Field on Friday night, with the home team yearning to flip the script.
Eureka 19, Del Norte JV 0
The Del Norte junior varsity squad fell to 5-2 on the season after a shutout loss to the Loggers on Saturday afternoon.
Eureka, which moved to 8-0 overall, benefited from three touchdown passes by quarterback Cyle Watkins.
Reach Robert Husseman at email@example.com.