INCLINE VILLAGE — If Incline’s season opener was any indication of things to come, the Highlanders are set for a wild 2014 campaign.
The Incline football team came up about an inch short of a potential overtime victory Friday night, falling 47-45 in a back-and-forth barn burner against visiting Portola.
After storming back from behind with a dominant third quarter, and then coughing up the lead in the fourth, Incline quarterback Jack Clouthier and tight end Ben Snyder connected for a 19-yard, game-tying touchdown with 29 seconds remaining in regulation.
In the excitement of the moment, however, the Highlanders were called for a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty, which led to a failed PAT from the 17-yard line.
To overtime they went, with each team granted four downs from the 10-yard line. The Tigers were up first.
Following three failed attempts, quarterback Evan Leal punched the ball across the goal line from a yard out. He then hit Lohl Peiler for the two-point conversion, and Portola led by 8.
The Highlanders didn’t waste time matching the Tigers’ touchdown. On their first play from the 10, Clouthier rolled to his right and fired a ball to an open Alex Zissis. All they needed was the conversion to knot the score once more and send the game into a second overtime.
With the home fans out of their seats and lining the field, Clouthier again rolled to his right, this time finding an open Owen Graffis at the goal line. Graffis made a fine grab. Fans cheered.
But it was a short-lived celebration, as the official ruled that the ball did not cross the goal line. The Tigers had escaped with the two-point win.
“I’m extremely proud of our effort,” said Incline coach Scott Conn, who also could not hide his disappointment after the close loss.
Incline looked poised for a comeback win after scoring three unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter, which turned a 25-13 halftime deficit into a 33-25 lead.
With most of the Highlanders playing both offense and defense, however, the hosts simply ran out of gas in the fourth. Their offensive drives began moving in the wrong direction due to repeated penalties, while Portola running back Memo Ruiz took advantage of gaping holes in the Incline defense to score consecutive touchdowns of 33 and 28 yards, the last of which gave the Tigers a 39-33 lead with 2:50 remaining.
“Despite all our conditioning, we still play ironman football, and when you have players going both ways the entire game, they’re going to get tired toward the end. And I think that manifested itself in penalties,” Conn said.
Tired but in need of a score, the Highlanders pieced together an 11-play, 69-yard touchdown drive in which they converted two crucial fourth downs. Senior tight end Ben Snyder accounted for both fourth-down conversions. He gained 28 yards with a key reception over the middle on a fourth-and-13 play from midfield. Shortly after, he and Clouthier again hooked up over the middle, this time on a fourth-and-7 play from the 19-yard line as Snyder lumbered into the end zone to tie the score.
Incline had already missed four PATs on the evening, and the excessive celebration penalty — a subjective and harsh infraction given the situation — essentially eliminated any chance of winning the game in regulation.
The nonleague contest had a high-scoring feel from the start.
Portola drew first blood with a long drive that culminated with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Leal to Lohi Peiler.
Incline answered almost immediately. Clouthier hit Zissis for a 31-yard pass play on the Highlanders’ first play from scrimmage. He then fired a strike on the second play to Snyder, who took it to the house from 36 yards out.
The Tigers scored again on a 61-yard pass play from Leal to Edgar Cuevas before the first quarter ended. The visitors scored two TDs in the second quarter, one on an 18-yard run by Pat Remington and another on a 40-yard run by Cuevas.
The Highlanders scored once more before the half, on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Clouthier to Zissis.
It was all Incline in the third quarter. Graffis capped consecutive drives with touchdown runs — from 1 and 17 yards — while Zissis caught a short pass and scampered 86 yards for another Incline score.
With an 8-point lead, the Highlanders had their chances to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
Graffis intercepted a pass near midfield early in the quarter. But Incline went three-and-out, then set up the Tigers with solid field position when a fourth-down snap sailed over the head of punter Jerry Sanchez. Two plays later, Peiler ran straight up the gut 33 yards, untouched, to the end zone. The conversion failed, leaving Incline up 33-31.
Two plays into Incline’s ensuing drive, the Highlanders fumbled a pitch, and Remington recovered it for Portola at the Incline 46-yard line. Four plays later, Ruiz again burst through a hole up the middle and into the open field, breaking a tackle on his way to another touchdown. The Tigers converted their two-point conversion to take a 39-33 lead.
That set up the Highlanders for their clutch game-tying drive in the final minutes.
“It was very promising,” Conn said of his team’s performance. “The offense moved the ball, and the defense created a lot of third down and fourth down situations. We just have to work on finishing series. But I thought we played physically.”