In a blink of an eye, Memorial High moved in front Friday night and eventually all the way to locking up a berth in the Central Section Division II championship.
The second-seeded Panthers vaulted to a third-quarter lead, carried there by the legs of Joey Ruiz, who ran for three touchdowns in a span of 2 minutes, 30 seconds as Memorial beat sixth-seeded Tulare Western 35-26.
The Panthers (9-3) found themselves down early after the Mustangs scored on three straight plays in the first quarter to take a 16-7 lead.
19 largest deficit of the game for Memorial, which nonetheless rallied to complete its largest comeback of the season
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Tulare Western (9-4) scored on a pass from Andre Aguilar to Josh Portillo, got a safety on the ensuing kickoff, and David Alcantar capped it with a 65-yard punt return.
It was just the start of a wild swing of events, as the Mustangs scored twice more in the second quarter to take a 26-7 lead at halftime.
But the Panthers decided they weren’t through.
“We just came together,” Ruiz said. “We came in at halftime and knew we had a lot to pick up after that deficit we put ourselves into but we came out of it.”
We just told them it could be our last two quarters of the season so we have to come out here and play as hard as we possibly can.
Memorial coach Anthony Gaston, on what he told his players at halftime when trailing Tulare Western 26-7
On his team’s first drive of the second half, Ruiz got Memorial right back on the board with a 27-yard run.
A few plays later, the Panthers foiled a fake punt by the Mustangs and took over on the Tulare Western 35. Two plays later, Ruiz was in the end zone again on a 2-yard dive to cut the deficit to five.
Memorial squibbed the ensuing kickoff and recovered at the Mustangs 32.
On the next play, Ruiz had his number called again and again he delivered, running 32 yards for the score that capped Memorial’s largest comeback of the season.
Fate just says it’s going to bounce their way at some point and when it bounced their way it just kept bouncing. They earned every bit of it.
Tulare Western coach Ryan Rocha on Memorial’s tough-to-stop momentum
“It felt like the top of the world. The momentum changed and it was all uphill from there,” said Ruiz, who finished with 201 yards on 25 carries.
Alvarez’s 34-yard run capped the scoring in the fourth quarter, and Demarcus Wilson intercepted an Andre Aguilar pass in the final seconds to seal the victory. It was the defense’s second takeaway of the half after recovering a third-quarter fumble.
Memorial will be back in the finals for the first time in five years when it plays next Friday at No. 1 Hanford. The Bullpups (11-1) beat No. 12 Golden Valley 42-14 in the other semifinal.
“It’s a complete team win,” Memorial coach Anthony Goston said. “We have enough talent, we have the guys to do it, they believed in what we were doing, they executed it and we got the win.”