Overcoming adversity in the form of penalties – one of which wiped out a 61-yard touchdown pass from Caden Soliz to Ezra Acevedo – as well as turnovers and injuries, the Three Rivers Bulldogs took control in the game’s final 18 minutes of their home opener to earn a 25-12 victory over the Nixon-Smiley Mustangs.
The Bulldog defense rose to the occasion on several drives, forcing a turnover on downs by the Mustangs, but it was Nixon-Smiley that got on the scoreboard first. After a scoreless first quarter, Mustang quarterback Luke Moses threw a pass over the middle to Bradyn Martinez for a 10-yard touchdown. The extra point kick was unsuccessful, leaving Nixon-Smiley on top 6-0.
A big kickoff return by the Bulldogs’ Kaiyden Inman was negated by a penalty, but Three Rivers put together a 76-yard drive capped off by a touchdown plunge by Rigoberto Sanchez up the middle to tie the score. The Mustangs blocked the extra point kick, keeping it 6-6.
Nixon-Smiley advanced to the Bulldog’s 8-yard line on the next drive, but a tackle for a loss by Daniel Diaz and a pass deflection by Jacob Amaro helped shut the drive down, and the Mustangs were unable to convert on a fourth-and-8 play.
Three Rivers took the lead on a long touchdown pass to D.J. Lancaster from Soliz with 1:13 left in the first half, and Sanchez’s extra point put the Bulldogs up 13-6.
Not content to let TR seize the momentum before the half, Nixon-Smiley’s Bradyn Martinez broke loose on a 70-yard touchdown run, trimming the Bulldogs’ lead to 13-12 with five seconds left in the half. The extra point kick hit the cross bar and was no good.
The Mustangs then recovered an onside kick, but time expired in the half before they could take advantage.
Three Rivers extended its lead to 19-12 when Sean Huff grabbed a short touchdown pass from Soliz with 6:53 left in the third quarter.
A Bulldog fumble at their own 40-yard line gave Nixon-Smiley new life, but big defensive plays by Zach Davis, Lancaster and Austin Stutts shut down the Mustangs’ hopes and forced another turnover on downs.
It was at that point that Soliz found a wide open Asevedo on a 61-yard TD strike, but a penalty canceled the score. Three plays later, a sack by the Mustangs also resulted in a fumble, but Matthew Zamzow pounced on the ball for TR and allowed the Bulldogs to punt.
As Nixon-Smiley worked its way onto the Bulldogs’ side of the field, Caleb Arnold forced a Mustang fumble to snuff out the drive.
Three Rivers took advantage of the opportunity, and Soliz darted past a host of Mustang defenders en route to a 32-yard touchdown scamper. A two-point conversion pass was stopped short of the goal line, but TR held a 25-12 lead with 3:22 left in the game.
Arnold forced another Mustang fumble on the next drive, and Zamzow recovered for Three Rivers, allowing the Bulldogs to run out the clock.
“They’re a lot better than they were last year,” coach Ramon Soliz said of a tough Nixon-Smiley squad. “We’ve got to prepare for every team. We had multiple injuries and we had to shuffle players around, but we worked through it. Great job by (Austin) Stutts, Justyn (Thornton) and Ethan (Castro). (Caleb) Arnold also did a great job playing through an injury.
“A win is a win, whether it’s by one or by 50, whether its against somebody’s freshman team or the Refugio Bobcats. We are going to appreciate each win.”
Defensive coordinator Kevin Sheppard said the goal is to be 1-0 every day and every week.
“Imagine a perfect week with everybody here and on time,” he said. “We’ve got to put it all together. You’ve got to show up ready to go every day and on every play.”
Soliz also praised Davis for his attitude and work ethic.
“Zach Davis, if everybody had your heart we’ve be undefeated every year,” he said.
Soliz completed 15 of 19 passes for TR for 172 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Leading receivers were Amaro with six catches for 64 yards, Lancaster with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, and Huff with three catches for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Sanchez led TR’s running game with 107 yards on 17 carries, while Soliz added 67 yards on 14 carries.
Keoki Bray had three pancake blocks on the offensive line for TR, while Diaz added two.
Sanchez was the team’s leading tackler with 12 stops while Stutts and Arnold each added eight and Inman and Amaro both had seven.
The Bulldogs will travel to Bruni for a 7 p.m. game on Sept. 10. The Badgers are 1-1 after a 56-6 loss to Refugio and a 45-12 win over Runge.