By Nick Giannandrea
College of the Sequoias football team has extended its season.
The Giants became bowl-eligible with a 27-26 nonconference victory at Shasta on Nov. 20, and have accepted an invitation to face Merced in the Valley Center Bowl on Dec. 2. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. from Merced's Don Odishoo Field.
Sequoias (5-5) will be making its second straight bowl appearance in a complete championship season, and first under coach Travis Burkett.
"I'm really grateful for all of the efforts of everyone involved in the program, staff and kids," said Bukett, in his first full season as Sequoias' coach. "I'm excited for the kids to compete and showcase their individual talents.And it's a step in the right direction for the program. I'm really grateful for the guys who have been here since 2019, or since we got on board and have battled and improved. They are the foundation bricks in our program moving forward."
The Giants played in the Gridiron Classic in 2019, losing 38-28 against Butte. Bowls were not contested in 2020 as the California Community College Athletic Association canceled all fall sports as a safety precaution related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sequoias was one of five schools that brought their program back for an abbreviated season in the spring of 2021,
In a game that was postponed from Sept. 25 because of catastrophic fires in the Shasta area, Sequoias was able to overcome the Knights in part because of a blocked point-after attempt by Terrance Irons (Fort Myers, Fla.).
"It was an absolutely phenomenal push by everyone." Burkett said. "That was a critical moment and we gave great effort."
Shasta had scored the potential game-tying touchdown on Toren Tuttle's 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Carey with 6 minutes and 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Giants got a strong push up the middle on the point-after try, with Irons, a 6-foot, 248-pound defensive lineman, leaping high into the air to get a hand on Dennis Perez's kick.
Ben Haywood (Cape Coral, Fla.) scooped up the blocked kick and took it to the other end zone for two points, but the points were nullified by a taunting penalty.
The Giants didn't give Shasta another opportunity, possessing the football for the final 6:21 as Nathan Lamb (Tulare Union) picked up first downs with runs of 31 and 10 yards, and a pass of 19 yards to Jaedyn Pineda (Mt. Whitney High). John Friend (Pearland, Texas) also had a first-down run on the drive, which covered 69 yards in 13 plays.
"Kudos to our kids and staff for doing a great job on the trip and go up and focus and get a really good victory against a really good opponent," Burkett said. "We're thrilled we're able to extend our season. It was a collective effort. A lot of guys did something, and that's a testament to a good team. They showed up in all three phases."
Sequoias took the lead for good at 27-20 in a back-and-forth affair with 9:25 left in the fourth quarter when Lamb capped a 10-play, 61-yard drive with a 1-yard run.
It was the Giants' first lead since opening the game's scoring on Lamb's 6-yard touchdown pass to Bryson Allen (Tulare Union) at the 14:11 mark of the first quarter.
The two-play, 15-yard scoring March was set up by an 84-yard kickoff return by Marc Jean-Louis (Port Charlotte, Fla.).
Shasta (4-6) answered on Toren Tuttle's 34-yard scoring pass to Josiah Graham, and went ahead 13-6 on Tyler Carey's 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Sequoias tied the score 13-13 on Lamb's 6-yard scoring run with 7:45 left in the third quarter, only to have Shasta tie the score again on Tuttle's 30-yard touchdown pass to Trevahn Foster 3:25 later.
The Giants went ahead 20-13 with 11 seconds remaining in the third quarter as Lamb connected with Pineda for an 8-yard touchdown.
Lamb completed 16 of 34 passes for 228 yards and no interceptions while also rushing 14 times for a team-leading 98 yards.
Allen caught five passes for 111 yards.
The Giants' defense was led by key contributions from Lonnie Wessel (Golden West), who had 15 tackles and an interception; Dorian Felix (Fort Myers, Fla.), who had eight tackles; Rigoberto Lopez (Tulare Western), who had six tackles; Jayden Sullivan (Redwood), who had five tackles; Rhett Sarvela (Vancouver), who had five tackles including half a sack; and Taaj Andrews (Boston), who had three tackles including 1.5 sacks.
Sequoias' defense received tackles from 22 different players.
The Giants have begun preparations for their bowl game against Merced, which went 6-4 during the regular season and finished second in the Golden Coast Conference.
"They are a tremendous opponent. A great team with lots of skill, which shows up on film," Burkett said. "Their quarterback can spin in. Their tailbacks are tough. We've got a tremendous challenge."
Merced previously played in the Central Valley Conference as one of Sequoias' rivals.
The Giants and Blue Devils did not have a common opponent this season.
Merced has outscored its opposition 372-246 behind an offense led by quarterback Ryan Kraft (1,828 yards and 15 touchdowns passing, 325 yards and three touchdowns rushing), and running backs Justin Incaprera (1,077 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Romello Presley (539 yards and nine touchdowns).
"We appreciate our administration working with the state and with Merced to give our kids another opportunity to play," Burkett said. "It's going to be a great day next Thursday."