It was all there for the taking for the Live Oak High football team. Up by two touchdowns and seemingly in full control in its Central Coast Section Division III playoff semifinal home game against Menlo School on Nov. 18, the Acorns couldn’t have asked to be in a better position to advance to their first section final in 15 years.
Instead, No. 2 seed Live Oak could only wonder what could’ve been after a 21-14 loss to the No. 3 seed Knights. The Acorns (9-3) were up 14-0 late in the third quarter when the bottom fell out. It started when Menlo came up with an interception with three minutes left in the third quarter.
Five plays later, the Knights (7-5) scored a touchdown to cut their deficit in half, 14-7. On the Acorns’ ensuing possession, they were stopped on a fourth-and-one from their own 38-yard line. Menlo took just three plays to reach the end zone again to make it 14-14 with 11 minutes, 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Menlo came up with yet another interception on Live Oak’s ensuing drive, and this time needed just one play—a 41-yard run—to score again, a TD that held up the rest of the way. In a span of five rapid-fire minutes, the Knights turned a 14-0 deficit into a seven-point lead.
“They made the adjustments, we couldn’t adjust out of it and they played a better second half,” Acorns coach Mike Gemo said. “You gotta give it to them for whatever they did at halftime. Their guys came out in the second half and laid it on the line.”
It was a tale of two halves as Live Oak controlled the first two quarters with Menlo seizing the momentum in the second half. The Knights amassed 161 of their 225 yards of total offense after halftime, all the while limiting the Acorns to just 24 yards in the third and fourth quarters.
That represented a season-low for Live Oak in any half this season. In the first half, Live Oak was able to do what it’s done all season: pound the ball with Jordan Fuentes, who gained 111 yards in that span but was limited to only 12 yards in the final two quarters.
Xavier Catano accounted for both of the Acorns’ TDs, scoring on runs of 9- and 2-yards, respectively. Catano finished with 34 yards rushing and added five receptions for 31 yards. Live Oak’s defense was stout in the opening half, highlighted by some stellar plays from Luke Richey.
The junior defensive lineman had a couple of tackles for losses and combined with Zurik Peery to force a Menlo fumble with 1:32 to go until halftime. Live Oak took over at the 50-yard line but went three-and-out, squandering a golden opportunity to pad its lead further.
Missed opportunities was the theme of the game for the Acorns, who missed on another chance to extend their lead when Josh Valdivia recovered a Menlo fumble on the second-half kickoff on the Knights’ 34-yard line.
But the Live Oak offense hit a dead end, gaining six yards and turning the ball over on downs. Acorns quarterback Landon Stump completed 10-of-20 passes for 71 yards and three interceptions. Knowing the opportunity was there, the Acorns were prepared to be playing the day or two after Thanksgiving, the annual dates for the CCS championship games in all five divisions.
“Absolutely,” Gemo said. “We already had a (schedule) in place, but it didn’t happen.”
Despite the loss, Gemo said he was proud of the team for winning a share of the Blossom Valley Athletic League Mount Hamilton Division championship.
“We had some ups and downs, but they played hard every game and they were league champs, so you have to give it to this group,” he said.
Gemo added that the team should be well fortified again to make a run at a league title and deep playoff push in 2023 because of projected returners like Richey, Peery, Josh Gagni, Christian Hauge, Zach Rocha, and Keaton Dietz.
The aforementioned returners all played on defense, which was a source of strength for most of the season.
“Our defense has been keeping us in a lot of games this year so we look forward to a lot of those guys on defense right now stepping up next year and having great senior years,” Gemo said. “We’ve got a lot coming back next year, we have a lot to look forward to and we’re ready to get to work on next year.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]