When Mendota High School hosted nearby rival Firebaugh High in the Battle of 33 last Friday night before an estimated 6,000 football fans, both teams made sure they showed up with plenty of ammunition.
In the end, the early fireworks by Firebaugh fizzled against a relentless Aztec offensive attack that tacked on 43 unanswered points in a 58-20 victory that left Mendota High one of only five Central Valley teams with an undefeated record.
The Aztecs honored former player Danny Amaral Jr., a 2014 graduate who was killed in a motorcycle accident two weeks ago. He was buried two days before the football showdown. Amaral played for the Aztecs and was quoted in the ESPN documentary ‘MENDOTA.’
Members of his former team released balloons before the game. Firebaugh players agreed to wear a decal on their helmets with the No. 1, which was Amaral’s number. Amaral’s parents were acknowledged at midfield before the coin toss.
That emotion probably affected Mendota, which gave up a 78-yard touchdown play on the first play from scrimmage when Firebaugh junior Tyler Palmer hauled in a pass from quarterback Noey García and quickly silenced the boisterous crowd.
Bad fortune – Firebaugh took over at the Mendota 5-yard line following a bad snap on a punt attempt – struck quickly when García scored a few plays later from 4 yards to give Firebaugh a 14-0 lead less than give minutes into the game.
“They just got a little bit emotional,” said Mejía about his team’s slow start. “When you’ve got the intensity of a game that high and you make a mistake, they jump on you 14-0.”
Firebaugh, said Mejía, took advantage of those mistakes.
“They beat us in that first quarter, but in the rest of the game, we composed ourselves and battled a little bit of adversity that we caused ourselves.”
How did Mendota respond?
Often and quickly!
▪ Running back Márquez Navarro made a one-handed catch over the middle from quarterback Junior Cárdenas and sped away on a 71-yard pass play less than two minutes after Firebaugh’s touchdown.
▪ When it appeared that Firebaugh would capitalize on an interception return to the Mendota 26, the Aztecs blocked a field goal attempt to prevent further damare.
▪ Navarro, who had a knack for big plays, scored on a 96-yard rushing play to tie the game at the 10-minute mark of the second quarter.
▪ A little more than 7 minutes later, Junior Cárdenas connected with Cristián Muratella on a 74-yard touchdown strike to give Mendota the lead for good. A two-point conversion upped the Mendota advantage to 22-14.
▪ A half-minute before halftime, Cárdenas tossed a 40-yards scoring pass to Fabián Jasso for a 29-14 advantage.
The onslaught continued in the second half: Erick Segura scored on a 19-yard run; and, Julián Cárdenas scored on a 19-yard pass from Junior Cárdenas on the first play of the fourth quarter to give the Aztecs a 43-14 lead.
Firebaugh managed to score 20 seconds later when the García-to-Palmer connection teamed up on a 68-yard pass.
Mendota’s Mikey Medina scored on a 2-yard run, and teammate Segura returned an intercepted pass 99 yards for a touchdown to close out the scoring.
“It’s all good,” said Mejía. “It came out good.”
Mejía called the game important for Mendota, which has suffered from drought conditions that have kept unemployment high.
“Everyone talks bad about us all the time,” he said. “We showed that there is a bright beacon, and it is the varsity football program.”