Sierra was the dominant team for the first two-plus quarters, but Michael Ramos and visiting Lathrop kept coming.
Bottled up for much of the first half, Ramos finished with 182 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, and cornerback Dan Ballesteros sealed the Spartans’ 21-20 comeback victory with a deflected pass on the penultimate play of the game.
Sierra (1-2 Valley Oak League, 2-4 overall) was ahead 20-6 with 5:26 left in the third quarter after Nick Stanley hit a wide-open Romeo Sesma (four receptions, 74 yards) for a 62-yard touchdown.
Lathrop (2-1, 3-3) tied it with 3:34 left in the game on Keonnee Linnell’s quarterback keeper on fourth-and-goal from the 1, and Mads Boellert gave the Spartans their first and only lead with the point-after kick. He earlier had a kick blocked by Jordan Black.
“We knew this game was going to be a tough one and that it was going to come down to the end,” said Ramos, who also had an interception on defense. “Right now, it’s a fight to make the playoffs — we can’t lose much after this.
“The first half was a rough one, but what we kept our heads up high and never gave up. In the second half things started rolling, the holes were there, people were doing their jobs and plays were happening.”
Ramos provided Lathrop its only highlight of the opening half, a 56-yard touchdown run that made up the majority of the Spartans’ offense (108 yards).
“When he gets to the second level (of the defense) anything can happen,” Lathrop coach Joe Pirillo said. “He’s special.”
The Timberwolves also showed some fight in their last-ditch effort to salvage a much-needed win. With running back Daemon Duran (31 rushes, 131 yards) shouldering the load, they drove down to the Lathrop 17 before he was dropped for a 4-yard loss by lineman Justin Munoz Romero.
Following a timeout, Duran slipped behind the line of scrimmage for a 3-yard loss, forcing Sierra to call its final timeout with 43.9 seconds to go. Two plays later, Sierra faced with fourth-and-14 from the 20.
Stanley (8 of 12, 171 yards) heaved it toward receiver David Reyes, who was momentarily open inside the 5-yard-line. That was when Ballesteros jumped in front of the pass and batted it down with his right hand after initially losing his footing.
Linnell and the Spartans lined up in victory formation and kneeled it to put the finishing touches on the well-earned triumph.
“I was just looking at the quarterback, reading his eyes and he looked my way,” Ballesteros said. “The whole game he was passing to the other side, so I just had to be ready. I saw the quarterback throw it and I just knew I had to make a play, man.”
Sierra could have opted to attempt a game-winning field goal, but its placekicker — and top playmaker — was ejected in the third quarter for punching a Lathrop player. It was Larenz Redd’s show up until that point. He had 98 yards rushing, 97 receiving and two touchdowns. Redd also picked off a pass inside Sierra’s own 5 early in the third.
His ejection was part of a triple whammy that went against the Timberwolves on one play. Ramos rambled 29 yards , and a flag for personal foul had already been thrown during the sequence. Redd was then ejected after the play, and the two penalties helped set Lathrop up on the 4. Ramos scored on the next play, closing the Spartans in, 20-14.
It’s not the only time a penalty cost Sierra. At the end of the first half, Duran dashed 10 yards to the Lathrop 2 with about 30 seconds to go, but the Timberwolves were flagged for a dead-ball unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Sierra settled for a field-goal attempt. Redd’s kick had plenty of distance but caromed off the left upright. Redd will have to sit out Sierra’s next game at Oakdale (3-0, 5-1).
“Hats off to Lathrop, first off, they just outplayed us in the third quarter,” Sierra coach Chris Johnson said. “I give all the credit in the world to them, (Ramos) is a great back and their line got after it, but we also beat ourselves. We kept ourselves from (scoring) a touchdown and gave up a touchdown because of personal fouls, and our best player gets ejected. That’s difference of the game.”