INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. – The Highlanders' season-opening performance was far from flawless, but it was plenty good enough.
Using an efficient offense and increasingly stifling defense, Incline scored 14 unanswered points in the second half to turn a tight game into a 28-12 nonleague victory over visiting Sierra Ridge Academy.
“It wasn't pretty, but it was a good win,” said Incline senior receiver and defensive back Michael Wegener, who helped ignite his team with two big scoring plays in the first half.
The game seemed destined for a high score after an explosive first quarter highlighted by long scoring plays from both teams, including a 72-yard touchdown pass by the Rams and an 85-yard kickoff return by Wegener moments later.
But Incline swarmed to the ball in the second half as the visitors, who hail from San Andreas, Calif., began to lose steam. The Highlanders held the Rams to only 22 yards total after the half on 23 rushes, with zero pass completions.
“I'm definitely proud of us shutting them down in the second half,” said first-year Incline head coach Scott Conn. “We were too anxious in the first half. We were bursting through and going right by the guy. But then we settled down and were more patient, and I think that threw a wrench in their gears.”
While Incline's defense went to work, senior fullback/linebacker Sean Herrera and Wegener torched the Rams on the offensive side, scoring two touchdowns apiece.
Herrera finished with 92 yards rushing on 12 carries, with a 42-yard touchdown reception, and Wegener hauled in two passes for 52 yards and put Incline on the board with his long kickoff return.
It was Sierra Ridge that drew first blood, however.
After Incline senior Brendon Steinmeyer narrowly missed a 44-yard field goal on the Highlanders' opening drive, Rams quarterback Kenneth Holmes hooked up with Isaiah Horton on a third-and-15 play, and Horton picked his way through traffic en route to a 72-yard touchdown.
Incline responded immediately, as Wegener received the ensuing kickoff, burst through a hole and sprinted 85 yards into the end zone untouched. The PAT missed, leaving the score knotted at 6-6.
“I looked at the hole and saw that two guys were way outside,” Wegener explained, “so I ran through them and then ran as fast I could hoping no one was behind me.”
The Highlanders took over the lead for good late in the first quarter when junior quarterback Christian Biscotti delivered a perfectly placed deep pass over the left shoulder of Wegener, who slipped behind the Rams secondary for a 34-yard touchdown. Biscotti ran in the two-point conversion to give the Highlanders a 14-6 lead.
The perfectly executed connection impressed Conn.
“He (Wegener) did an excellent job of catching that ball. He got behind the defense, and Christian threw him a perfect ball. If we can execute plays like that, good things are going to happen,” the coach said.
But Silver Ridge still had some fight left. Following one of Biscotti's two interceptions in the second quarter, this one at the Rams 22-yard line, Holmes pushed his way into the end zone three plays later, cutting the lead to 14-12 after a failed extra point.
The second half got off to an ugly start for the Highlanders, who coughed up fumbles to the Rams on each of their first two possessions.
But with the way their defense was playing, it didn't matter, as Incline forced Sierra Ridge into five consecutive three-and-out possessions after the half. Incline's offense then found its groove again after a scoreless third quarter.
Herrera scored on a 7-yard run in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, making several tacklers miss with shifty moves. On the Highlanders' next possession, Herrera caught a short play-action pass before eluding a Ram and running 42 yards for a touchdown.
“I caught it and I thought the guy was going to catch me, but I got away,” he said.
Besides his 134 total yards of offense, Herrera played a significant role in shutting down the Rams' offense, along with Biscotti, Wegener, Ben and Sam Reber and Ben Snyder, to name a few.
“Sean had an awesome game,” Conn said of Incline's newest member, who moved from Susanville to Incline in the offseason.
Wegener, who suffered from leg cramps in the second half, came up big once more on the ensuing Sierra Ridge drive when he used a well-timed leap to intercept a ball near midfield, ending the Rams' only promising possession of the half with 2 minutes to play.
“We're really young,” said Sierra Ridge head coach Jesus Tapia. “We only have one kid who has played high school football before, so we're basically a JV team. But they played hard.”
About the Highlanders, Tapia added, “They do a good job and they were very hospitable to us.”
Incline now looks forward to its rival matchup against North Tahoe to kick off league play on Friday, Aug. 31, at 6 p.m.
“It's a huge game,” Wegener said. “We've gotta lay the wood on ‘em.”