REDLANDS -- No matter how difficult the challenge appeared heading into the Southern Section Inland Division first-round game Friday night, Norco wasn't about to go down easy.
Despite finishing fourth in the Big VIII League and getting blown out last week in the regular-season finale, the Cougars had not lost a first-round playoff game since 2002, holding a 20-6 record in the postseason over the previous eight years.
But the fourth-seeded Redlands East Valley football team also had something to prove and they showed their resiliency with a second-half comeback and late fumble recovery, which sealed a 20-15 victory against Norco at Redlands High.
The Wildcats (11-0) certainly did their part to keep the game close, losing three fumbles in the second half.
“If you can’t play mistake-free football, then it’s going to get ugly,” said Redlands East Valley coach Kurt Bruich. “Thank God we’re not turning our gear in.”
The Cougars (6-5) were able to capitalize on the first turnover by REV, scoring on a 13-yard run by junior running back Joseph Ajeigbe, who then converted the two-point conversion for a 15-14 lead with 7:46 remaining in the third quarter.
Facing its most precarious moment, a third and eight from its own 38-yard line, REV quarterback Austin Decoud found Jesse Riley for a 41-yard completion to the Norco 21.
“I knew we needed to get the first,” Decoud said. “I was getting ready to take a hit, but I knew I had to get the ball off, so I let it go and I knew he was going to be there.”
Two plays later, Decoud hit Zach Brown in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown pass and a 20-15 lead. Decoud could not convert the two-point run, but the Wildcats were back in front.
REV turned the ball over twice more in the second half but Norco was unable to convert. The Cougars started their final possession on their own 27-yard line with 3:17 remaining and crossed midfield just over a minute later, but Ajeigbe fumbled and REV linebacker Dylan Moi recovered on his own 42 with 1:56 remaining.
The Wildcats were glad to get the victory but were hardly celebrating their performance. In addition to the turnovers, they also lost starting right tackle Nelson Goins to a knee injury and starting running back Taylor Thompson was limited by a strained hamstring.
“What’s irritating to me is, when our kids have to step on the gas, they do, but tonight they didn’t want to keep going,” Bruich said.
Norco outside linebacker Scott Starr played his final high school game before he's set to continue his career next season at USC. He recovered one of the fourth-quarter fumbles and sacked Decoud but could only watch from the sideline as the Cougars committed four turnovers.
“It just came down to execution,” he said. “We all played our tails off tonight.”
Unfortunately, the Wildcats are the ones still wagging theirs.