LATHROP — The Spartans of Lathrop High marched two by two toward the locker room as they always do after home games, and they did it with heads held high.
They gave visiting Franklin of Elk Grove all they could handle Friday night in a 38-32 loss at Bennie Gatto Field, but instead of mulling over another tough-to-swallow setback they are looking ahead with a message for Valley Oak League opponents to come:
“We’re ready for the VOL,” second-year head coach Joe Pirillo said.
Lathrop (1-2) nearly pulled off a major upset against a large-school squad from the daunting Delta League. Franklin (3-0) buried its previous two opponents by a combined 97-0 score and is ranked ninth in the Sacramento Bee’s top 20.
It’s the second time in three weeks that the Spartans let one slip away. On Sept. 2 they were nipped by small-school power Hilmar, 16-14. Lathrop had its bye week between the two games.
“We put ourselves in a position to play teams in the VOL,” Pirillo said. “That’s why we scheduled the way that we did — two games against two tough opponents and we showed that we can play with them.”
It was wake-up call for Franklin, said Wildcats head coach Mike Johnson, who is familiar with football in the region having previously led Lincoln High of Stockton from 1997-2001.
“You know what? I think our guys came in kind of thinking, ‘They’re not going to be very good,’” Johnson said. “Well, they don’t know football. It was a great Week 3 game in front of a great home crowd. It felt like a playoff game.”
It wasn’t decided until Franklin’s Jalen Lampley recovered an onside kick near midfield with 8 seconds remaining. Prior to that, Lathrop junior quarterback Keonnee Linnell led two impressive scoring drives lasting 35 and 50 seconds, hitting R.J. Tisdell (six receptions, 80 yards) and Galven Munoz (six receptions, 68 yards) for touchdowns.
“I think we proved that we don’t back down without a fight,” Tisdell said. “We don’t give up. There’s four quarters in a game for a reason and we play until there’s zeroes on that clock.”
Kaderro Tamondong led the Franklin offense with 129 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. His 49-yard jaunt with 1:06 left gave the Wildcats a 38-26 lead. Tamondong is also a standout linebacker named to the Cal-Hi Sports preseason All-Sac-Joaquin Section Team.
Brady Johnson, the coach’s son, contributed 92 yards and three touchdown receptions for Franklin. The 6-foot-2 wide out came down with a clutch catch with about 3 minutes remaining, setting up a 32-yard field goal from Nate Lindemann that pushed Franklin’s lead to 31-20. On third-and-14 from the Lathrop 33, Spartans defenders Mattox Harrell and Michael Ramos had chances to pick off a pass, as they took turns tipping it in the air before Johnson hauled it in.
Lathrop outside linebacker Donald Garland III had the first highlight of the game, an 18-yard pick-six that opened scoring late in the first quarter. He ran down sophomore QB Nico Regino (9 of 17, 130 yards), who attempted to loft it over the pass rusher only to have it intercepted by the leaping Garland.
Turnovers were what haunted Lathrop throughout, as the Wildcats turned three giveaways — two interceptions and a fumble on a kickoff return — into touchdowns.
“If we eliminate our mistakes it could be a different ballgame,” Pirillo said. “Instead of us being down by one score we could be up by two scores. We’re still learning and we’re still a young program, but man we have some athletes.”
Linnell is one of them. The blossoming quarterback had his best effort of the young season, completing 22 of 39 passes for 248 yards and four TDs. His other scoring tosses were to Isaias Hunter (two receptions, 34 yards) and Anthony Santos (five receptions, 75 yards). Linnell showed poise in pressure situations, which include the last-minute drives and a fourth-down touchdown from 3 yards out to Santos in the third quarter.
“Keonnee is an exceptional athlete,” Pirillo said. “He took everything that we spoke about head on the last two weeks, and it shows how well the kid is progressing and willing to work to be a top quarterback.”
Lathrop is looking to make it back to the postseason after doing so for the first time last year. The Spartans head to East Union next Friday for their VOL opener.
“Our coach believes in us, gave us that work ethic and we have bought into the program,” Tisdell said. “We feel like we can do anything.”