Wolverines stand at first place with two games left in regular season
TRUCKEE, Calif. — The Truckee football team stands alone in first place and with two games remaining in the regular season, has clinched a first-round bye ahead of the Class 3A Northern League playoffs.
The Wolverines faced the only other unbeaten team in league play on Saturday, and rode to a 21-7 win at home against Elko behind a dominant defensive effort.
“It’s a big win for us mentally,” said junior Joe Birnbaum. “A lot of people thought Elko was going to come out here and kill us. They thought Elko was going to be a stronger team, and that just shows our Truckee heart, our Truckee pride. We play as brothers and we’re committed to each other. I think that’s something Truckee has that’s stronger than a lot of other teams.”
Elko was the latest team to come up without an answer for Birnbaum, who scored all three of Truckee’s touchdowns on Saturday. The two-time state champion in hurdles has been unstoppable this season, finding the end zone in each of Truckee’s eight games. Birnbaum has scored multiple touchdowns in seven games and has scored a combined 11 touchdowns the past three contests. Birnbaum has 15 rushing touchdowns and six receiving touchdowns so far this season.
“Whenever I get (the ball), I take advantage of that time and that opportunity,” he said. “I try to benefit the team as much as I can.”
Birnbaum put Truckee on the board midway through the first quarter, catching a pass over the middle and outracing the defense for a 38-yard touchdown. Junior kicker Michael Tanner knocked in the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
The Indians would drive the length of the field on the ensuing possession, but were turned away on a fourth-and-five play from the Truckee 11-yard line when senior Miles Kelly-Caruthers knocked away a pass attempt.
Elko would get the ball right back on an interception, and then used an up-tempo run attack to move from the Truckee 27-yard line toward the goal line, eventually setting up a short touchdown run by senior Eli Finlayson. Sophomore Ethan Kraintz converted the extra-point attempt to tie the game 7-7.
Truckee would threaten to retake the lead toward the end of the half, but had a drive end on downs on the Elko 36-yard line.
Truckee junior quarterback Jace Estabrook took the kickoff to open the second half, and nearly returned it for a touchdown but was tracked down by an Elko defender at the Indians 37-yardline. From there, Truckee drove down toward the Elko goal line, including converting a fourth-and-short play by handing off to Kelly-Caruthers. Birnbaum capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. The kick by Tanner was good to make the score 14-7.
The Truckee defense then forced a three-and-out and on the ensuing possession, Estabrook launched a bomb down the left sideline and to a sprinting Birnbaum, who caught it with a defender draped all over him for a 47-yard touchdown.
“That was all Jace (Estabrook),” said Birnbaum. “He couldn’t have put the ball in a better spot. Jace put it right in my hands, and all I had to do was catch it.”
Tanner converted the extra-point attempt to give Truckee a 21-7 lead.
Elko looked to get back into the game to start the fourth quarter, driving down to the Truckee 4-yard line, but a bad snap resulted in a fumble recovery by Truckee senior Tanner Kuch. After a Truckee punt, Kuch, who also blocked a punt earlier in the game, would again be in the right place at the right time, scooping up another Elko fumble. Estabrook then forced a third consecutive turnover on the following drive, intercepting a pass to put an end to the game.
Estabrook finished the evening with 244 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception on 13-of-16 pass attempts.
“When you’re outnumbered in the box every single play, you’ve got to have an answer,” said Head Coach Josh Ivens. “(Estabrook) settled into the game and played well.”
Birnbaum had 76 rushing yards on 11 carries, and caught six passes for 135 yards. Senior Luke Trotter had 42 rushing yards on eight carries and Kelly-Caruthers had 41 rushing yards on 13 carries. Senior Alfonso Ayala caught a pair of passes for 42 yards.
Defensively, junior Paul Ronzone led Truckee with 15 tackles, including two tackles for a loss. Junior Ryder Crezee had 11 tackles. Senior Fabian Cerda and junior Luke Lauter combined for 14 tackles.
As a team, Truckee held Elko to 196 yards of total offense.
The Wolverines (8-0, 5-0 Northern League) will have a short week and will host Sparks (1-7, 1-5 Northern League) on Thursday at 7 p.m. The team will then close the regular season the following week on the road against South Tahoe (1-6, 0-5 Northern League).
“We’ve got to take everybody seriously,” said Birnbaum. “The record doesn’t really matter. We just got to get into their house or our house and go 100% no matter what.”
Coach Ivens said the Wolverines may adjust practice with a shorter week and coming off a physical game against Elko, but the approach will remain the same.
“It’s about preparing our guys like we do every single week,” said Ivens. “We still go about our business the same way.
“We’re going to see these teams again in the playoffs and we know that. We have to take the next three weeks and make sure we continue to progress and get better in order to be competitive when the playoffs hit.”
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