The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

CSM freshman Valentino Foni crosses the goal line on a 3-yard run for the first score of the CCCAA state championship game Saturday at Wheelock Stadium. The Bulldogs ultimately fell 24-21 against host Riverside. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

CSM freshman Valentino Foni crosses the goal line on a 3-yard run for the first score of the CCCAA state championship game Saturday at Wheelock Stadium. The Bulldogs ultimately fell 24-21 against host Riverside. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

RIVERSIDE — Going down to the final play, College of San Mateo’s bid for a repeat state championship came down to a gut-wrenching finish.

The Riverside Tigers (12-1) claimed the California Community College Athletic Association state football championship on the game’s final play, as kicker Gabe Panikowski booted a a 24-yard field goal to deliver a 24-21 victory.

The 2023 community college season came down to a riveting final quarter, one that started with a 14-14 tie and saw the Bulldogs and Tigers trade two touchdown-scoring drives. After Riverside took a 21-14 advantage with 9:50 to play, CSM went on a bruising drive to tie it with 2:01 to go.

“These guys have championship-level heart,” CSM head coach Tim Tulloch said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of. They’re already champions, they’re going to be champions for the rest of their lives just by the way they carried themselves, and the way they fought. And you can’t discount any of that.”

It was a year ago the CSM Bulldogs reveled on their home field, and reveled mightily, routing Riverside 55-0 on a fog-riddled day at College Heights Stadium. With the only hint of ill weather Saturday at Wheelock Stadium being a mild wind, one that Panikowski had at his back as he lined up to kick the game-winner, the Tigers earned their payback on their turf, under their fair skies, as the Bulldogs walked away stunned.

“I was happy we could get them back cause they were doing a lot of talking that we couldn’t play in those conditions, which we proved we couldn’t,” Riverside running back Bryce Strong said. “But we were out here in our own environment, and we were able to get it done.”

Slow to get going

CSM (11-2) dug deep to get its offense moving. The Tigers outgained the Bulldogs 422-365 in total yards, and their commitment to containing quarterback Anthony Grigsby and the vaunted CSM passing game was a big reason why. Grigsby still went for 236 yards on 19-of-26 passing, but the strong coverage by Riverside’s secondary helped set the stage for four sacks and one interception of CSM’s redshirt freshman quarterback.

Riverside defensive lineman Esaia Bogar stole the show though. The freshman racked up eight tackles with one sack, and tormented Grigsby all afternoon.

“He’s a heck of a player,” Tulloch said. “He’s got a ton of sacks, he’s extremely athletic, good burst off the ball, we knew he was probably their best defensive player, and he was someone you knew we had to pay attention to in a game like this.”

Riverside quarterback Jordan Barton totaled 315 yards, including 201 by air on 22-of-31 passing. But his ground attack of 18 rushes for 114 yards and two touchdowns loomed largest.

“He played well,” Grigsby said. “Obviously, he led his team to the state championship, so hats off to him.”

CSM got on the board first, forcing a quick three-and-out and going on the march. The Bulldogs moved it 65 yards on six plays, with four carries by Nate Sanchez. But it was Grigsby who put the offense in motion with a quick-strike, 38-yard pass on a crossing route to Fidel Pitts, who got free underneath and cut to the sideline for the big gain. Four plays later, Valentino Foni punched it in on third-and-goal from the 3, taking a wildcat snap and bulling through the left side for the touchdown, staking the Bulldogs to a 7-0 lead.

However, the Bulldogs were held in check until the final minute of the first half.

“It just took us a little while to get into a groove,” Tulloch said. “On the first drive we got into a groove, we got rolling. Then we were out of sync just a little bit, a certain play here, a play there.”

Riverside fired right back with a gritty drive, changing the momentum of the game. Big time.

The Tigers marched 75 yards on 15 plays, on a drive that included two third-down conversions, and a second-chance touchdown after CSM had initially got a stop to force a field goal. A penalty flag for defensive holding by the Bulldogs put Riverside back on the field, happy to take the 3 points off the scoreboard in exchange for first-and-goal from the 2. The Tigers banged the next play into the end zone on a 2-yard run by Strong to tie it 7-7.

After a CSM three-and-out, Riverside struck again. This time, a 10-play, 82-yard drive culminated in a 10-yard scoring scramble by Barton to make it 14-7 less than two minutes into the second quarter.

Defenses take over

The two defenses turned the remainder of the half into a battle for field position, with CSM breaking through in the final minute before the half. Taking over at their own 35, the Bulldogs opened with a 44-yard pass from Grigsby to Pitts. Five plays later, Grigsby outran the Riverside blitz, escaping an ankle grab by sophomore Marcus Jones, and evading pursuit by Bogar as rolled right and found Terence Loville in the end zone on a comeback route for a 3-yard TD score with two seconds to go in the half.

“They definitely did a good job just covering space around the field,” Loville said. “I noticed that a couple times I was double-teamed, just taking a big part of the game like that. But scramble drill was a big part of it. When Grigs got out of the pocket, he had to run around and kind of find his spot, because they dropped so many guys in coverage.”

Barton, though, was also adept at avoiding the CSM rush. The Bulldogs settled for two sacks throughout, with Riverside’s sophomore quarterback frustrating with his ability to dodge the blitz. CSM sophomore linebacker Arona Mata’u had a bead on several QB sacks in the first half but couldn’t close any out.

“Oh gosh, it had to be like five,” Mata’u said. “He saw me coming, he didn’t care, he just threw it. He took on the hit. Props to him.”

CSM tight end Corbin Yates outstretches for a one-handed catch late in the fourth quarter to set up the Bulldogs’ final score. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

CSM tight end Corbin Yates outstretches for a one-handed catch late in the fourth quarter to set up the Bulldogs’ final score. Photo by Patrick Nguyen.

Pace picks up in the fourth

Riverside broke through at the start of the fourth quarter, marching 64 yards, with Barton turning a third-and-10 jam from the CSM’s 14 into his second TD run of the day. But the Bulldogs went to the ground, alternating between Sanchez and Matthew White for steady pickups before summoning the freshman Lolo Mataele.

Facing fourth-and-1 from the Riverside 30, CSM kept the drive alive when Mataele slammed through the right side for a critical 1-yard gain to move the sticks. He followed with a 9-yard ramble off left tackle, setting the stage for the highlight-reel catch of the year by tight end Corbin Yates.

One third-and-1 from the 20, Grigsby led the sophomore with a loft that looked uncatchable. Yates somehow extended with a full dive to nab Grigsby’s soft touch with one hand and control it as he landed at the 1-yard line.

“I witnessed it first-hand,” Loville said. “It seemed a little bit out of his reach, but as soon as he stuck that one hand out, I was like: ‘Oh, it’s gonna stick,’ and it was a beautiful catch.”

One the following play, Foni slammed in with his second wildcat TD carry of the day, tying it 21-21 with 2:01 to play.

It was inside the final two minutes, however, that Strong proved true to his name for Riverside.

With the Tigers facing third-and-1 from their own 34, Strong took the ball, only to get hit at the line of scrimmage. A pack of blue jerseys converging on the sophomore seemed to imply the play was over, but nobody told Strong, who broke a tackle and scurried up the field for a game-changing 32-yard pickup.

“I felt I was wrapped, and I just did a spin and next thing you know it was nothing but green grass,” Strong said.

Two plays later, Barton scrambled for the backbreaker, a 22-yard run to the 7-yard line. Two plays later, Panikowski broke the Bulldogs’ hearts on the final play of the season.

“There’s not one ounce of regret that you walk off this field with,” Tulloch said of his postgame message to his team. “They left it all out there, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s like: ‘Keep your eyes up, keep your head up. You represented our program well, you represented each other well, and these guys, they have a brotherhood; this team, they’re going to be together for the rest of their lives. They’re going to be brothers for life. …

“It was one of those games that came down to a last-second field goal, and it’s one play here, one play there. That doesn’t discredit anything they’ve done this year in any way, shape or form.”