Incline Highlanders exceed expectations in high school football opener |

Incline Highlanders exceed expectations in high school football opener

An underclassmen-heavy Incline football team opened the season on Saturday, Aug. 26, at North Tahoe, and gave the more experienced Lakers all they could handle during a gritty 16-13 loss in overtime.

The Highlanders held the Lakers at bay for the majority of the game, leading 10-0 in the second half, but North Tahoe rallied back to force overtime, and then won the game on quarterback Thomas Mercogliano's pass to receiver Dalton Lamberth.

"They did way better than I ever expected," Head Coach Michael Sacci said. "We talk about a perfect effort every single play, and they gave that to us today … for a bunch of freshmen and sophomores and lower classmen out there, it's just amazing how they performed today."

Each team's offense would struggle with early season mistakes during the first half, turning the opening two quarters into a defensive battle.

“We talk about a perfect effort every single play, and they gave that to us today … for a bunch of freshmen and sophomores and lower classmen out there, it’s just amazing how they performed today.”Michael SacciHighlanders Head Coach

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Highlander's freshman kicker Marco Barraza scored the lone points of the half, drilling a 38-yard field goal to give Incline a 3-0 edge.

The Highlanders offense was more efficient in the second half, coming out in the third quarter with their finest drive of the game.

"We set it up through the pass," Sacci said. "We didn't pass much at all in the first half, and we got a few passes that were completed, then we just started softening up the box. We had a beautiful drive. It was the best drive of the day."

As the Lakers constantly stacked the box with their 6-2 defense, freshman quarterback Dylan Cleary began finding receivers downfield, taking pressure off the team's running game.

The Highlanders would take the ball down inside the 10-yard line, setting up junior Eleazar Santiago's short touchdown run off the left edge. Barraza's extra point gave the Highlander's a 10-0 advantage.

Later in the quarter, the Highlanders defense would get North Tahoe up against the ropes, forcing a third-and-18 on the Incline 32-yard line, but quarterback Mercogliano managed to escape to the outside on the play, before making several Incline players miss on his way to a 68-yard touchdown run.

"If it wasn't for that broken play, I think we would've had it in the bag," Sacci said.

From there, the Highlanders would get into trouble with penalties as the Lakers offense evened the game at 10-10 on a 22-yard field goal.

With the game still tied late in the fourth quarter, the Highlanders looked to regain the lead on a field goal attempt, but penetration along the line allowed the Lakers to block the try.

North Tahoe would then have a chance to win the game with a field goal in the final seconds after the Highlanders were assessed a trio of 15-yard personal foul penalties. But kicker Guthrie Goss' attempt would go wide right of the uprights, extending the game into overtime.

Incline got the first possession in overtime, taking over on the Lakers 10-yard line. But the North Tahoe defense held stiff, stopping the Highlanders on three straight plays to force a short field goal by Barraza, giving Incline a 13-10 advantage.

On the following possession, North Tahoe rolled their quarterback out on a boot play to the right, where he found 6-foot, 1-inch receiver Lamberth with a smaller defender on his back for the game-winning score.

"I didn't even throw a good ball," North Tahoe quarterback Mercogliano said. "I didn't know where it was going … (Lamberth) came down with it — super great catch."

With just seven upperclassmen on the roster, Incline put up a solid fight against the more experienced Lakers, and aside for one broken play against Mercogliano the team was able to keep the North Tahoe offense in check for the majority of the game.

Cleary showed poise in the pocket in his first start at quarterback, escaping defenders on several occasions to find his receivers downfield. He finished the game 7 of 13 on pass attempts for 79 yards.

Freshman Brad Rye led the team in rushing with 26 yards on four carries, and also in receiving with four catches for 51 yards. Statistics provided by

"I couldn't be happier," said Sacci on team's effort. "It was a win in our book."

Incline will look to get into the win column when the team plays host to Silver Stage (1-0) on Friday, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m.