Incline holds off North Tahoe, rallies for gridiron victory
Incline’s student body gathered on the sideline with about two minutes left in Friday night’s football game against rival North Tahoe and started chanting, “This is our lake!” “This is our lake!”
After four quarters and nearly three hours of both teams taking rides on an emotional rollercoaster, the Highlanders prevailed 39-28 over their friends and rivals.
As the final seconds ticked away, Incline’s student body stormed the field and celebrated with their team at midfield as it shook hands with the Lakers.
“Tonight was amazing,” said Incline sophomore quarterback Dylan Cleary. “North Tahoe is a great opponent. But I believe in our team and we all played our hearts out.”
The game was back and forth and up and down and all over. The Lakers struck like lightning. The Highlanders scored 26 straight points. North Tahoe scored 22 consecutive points forcing Incline to rally.
In between the emotional point swings, was off the charts sportsmanship. Make no mistake, these teams wanted to beat each other. Badly.
But after every whistle were opponents helping up one another … and even offering medical assistance.
North Tahoe star quarterback Thomas Mercogliano suffered through leg cramps most of the night and still had a monster game, but his best move came when helped stretch Highlander Christopher Vaughan when his leg cramped after a play.
“These boys they play, they pick each other up, pat each other on the back and their quarterback running around stretching our guy, like I said, we all love each other,” said Highlanders head coach Brian Martinez.
Brad Rye rushed for three touchdowns and Cleary threw for two and ran for another to offset Mercogliano’s four total scores as the Highlanders opened Northern League play with a victory and, probably more importantly, grabbed lake bragging rights for the rest of the year.
North Tahoe started with a bang. Mercogliano threw a perfect 64-yard bomb to Cooper Kohnen to give the Lakers a 6-0 lead 58 seconds into the game.
Incline answered two minutes later when Cleary connected with receiver Zach Pexa for a 10-yard touchdown. Also on the drive Cleary hit Jeremy Page for 43-yards and Gage Pierce for 16 yards.
Highlander linebacker Jorge Cardiel had a big say in stopping the Lakers next drive. The sophomore made a tackle for a four-yard loss and sacked the elusive Mercogliano for another five-yard loss.
Cardiel also had the hardest and loudest hit later in the half. He filled a gap with force and smashed a ball carrier for a two-yard loss.
“It was crazy tonight,” Cardiel said. “Lots of adrenalin rushes and ups and downs … just a very emotional game for us with our rivals.”
After a Laker punt, Highlander running back Brad Rye ran for a 34-yard touchdown on the next play to make it 14-6.
Incline made it 20-6 on a Rye 13-yard run with 10 seconds left in the opening quarter. The big play on the drive was a 44-yard reception to Keenan Collier on third-and-11.
Cleary scored on a 1-yard plunge to make it four straight Incline touchdowns, 26-6, after falling behind early. The speedy Cleary also had runs of 13 and 26 yards on the scoring drive.
The Highlanders were dominating and it looked like it could get ugly. But, wow, no way.
The tide turned in favor of North Tahoe right after the Lakers suffered a devastating hit, turning it over on downs at the Incline 5.
Cleary was sacked for a safety on the next play to make it 26-8. North Tahoe got the ball back and took just four plays to hit pay dirt and get within two scores, 26-14, at halftime.
The Lakers grabbed the lead in the third quarter on two scoring runs by Mercogliano. The first was a one-yard bull rush into the endzone, the second was maybe the play of the game.
“He’s very slippery, real good,” Cardiel said.
On the last play of the quarter, Mercogliano rolled right, found no receivers, brought the ball down and beat the defense to the corner and turned upfield.
He cut to the middle of the field and knifed through what seemed like the entire Incline defense. His progress looked stopped from the home sideline, only for him to reappear and dive into the endzone for a 50-yard touchdown and a 28-26 lead.
“It’s amazing because you know its going to happen and you can’t stop it,” Martinez said. “As a coach your head wants to explode. And No 13 (Kohnen), you know they’re gonna throw it to No. 13 deep, you know it’s coming and they’re still able to do it. That shows how good they are. That’s a talented group of kids.”
Incline took advantage of a North Tahoe turnover to take back the lead for good.
Collier recovered a fumble deep in Lakers’ territory on a punt return and set the Highlanders up at the 21.
With 5:47 left, Cleary dropped backed to pass.
“We did a play-action pass and I dumped it to Brad and he’s an amazing athlete,” Cleary said. “He did all the rest. I’ve been playing with him for six years now and he’s the best player I’ve ever played with. I love him to death.”
Incline led 32-28 and North Tahoe shot itself in the foot when a bad snap forced the Lakers to punt from their own 6 with just under four minutes left.
Rye scored the final touchdown on a 28-yard run with 3:26 left.
“Football is a game of momentum and once you lose it, it’s hard to get it back,” Cleary said. “But our team is tough, we’re strong and once we got the momentum back we were unstoppable.”
Cleary was 13 for 28 for 248 yards and also rushed for 65 yards on 11 carries. Rye had 96 yards on 15 attempts and also caught five passes for 74 yards.
Mercogliano rushed for 152 yards on 26 carries and also threw for 189 yards. Kohnen caught three passes for 124 yards.
Incline (2-0, 1-0 Northern) next will host a Thursday night special next week at 7 p.m. against the Yerington Lions.
“We never thought we had it,” Martinez said. “We went into halftime and it was zero zero, we never once relaxed. They came back and took the lead and we had to go get it again. We got a couple of lucky breaks.”