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Fort Bragg's defense leads way as Timberwolves reach NCS title game

Fort Bragg's Trystin Strickland (31) gains some yardage on a game between Fort Bragg and Saint Vincent high schools, in Petaluma on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

LORI A. CARTER,

FORT BRAGG — Before Friday night’s NCS Division 5 semifinal football game, Timberwolves coach Roy Perkins said his team’s defense was playing the best it had all season.

It couldn’t be peaking at a better time.

In a muddy, wet contest, No. 2 seed Fort Bragg pressured No. 6 Kelseyville at the line of scrimmage, particularly in the second half, coming away with a 20-7 win that puts the Timberwolves in the division championship game next Saturday against upset winner No. 5 St. Patrick-St. Vincent. The game will be played at Alhambra High School in Martinez with a 7 p.m. kickoff.

“Offensively, we’ve been good all year long,” Perkins said of his 11-1, 8-1 team. “We haven’t played great defense all year. But the last two weeks, we have.”

Last week, the Timberwolves shut out visiting Ferndale, 35-0, in a wet, windy quarterfinal game.

It might have been another shutout Friday, but Kelseyville was able to capitalize on a high snap on a Fort Bragg punt attempt to put points on the board in the third quarter.

Three early incidents hinted that Friday’s all-North Central League I semifinal might not be ordinary.

First, Fort Bragg couldn’t find a tee for the opening kickoff. Kelseyville quarterback Logan Barrick fumbled the ball on his first touch, although he pounced on it to retain possession. Fort Bragg had to use a timeout 1:15 into the game because of confusion on the line. And then Timberwolves quarterback Lucas Triplett lost a shoe to the mud on their first drive.

Both coaches lamented the squishy conditions, but knew at least both teams faced the same challenge to get footing and leverage.

Kelseyville coach Erick Larsen said he was happy with his team’s performance this year, despite the tough season-ender.

“We were in it the whole time,” he said. “Both fought hard at the line of scrimmage, but the nod goes to them, and they made the big plays when they needed to.”

Fort Bragg jumped out to a 7-0 lead on its first possession of the game.

Taking the ball on their own 39, the Timberwolves marched downfield in 13 plays – all but one run plays using their bruising fullback Trystin Strickland (6-2, 265).

After one failed attempt to score at the goal line, Strickland powered through the middle of the pack, for a 1-yard score. The kick by Alex Ybarra put Fort Bragg up, 7-0, with five minutes left in the first quarter.

Kelseyville couldn’t take advantage of two interceptions — one by Dwayne Yiggins and the other by Barrick — on the Timberwolves’ next two possessions. Both drives ended in punts for the Knights.

In the third quarter, Fort Bragg’s Cody Morgan recovered a forced fumble by Barrick, and the Timberwolves took over on Kelseyville’s 47.

A 17-yard run by Triplett on a keeper set up a 15-yard touchdown pass to Shane Giaccani, who grabbed the ball, spun and shed four tacklers on his way to the end zone. Ybarra’s kick put Fort Bragg up 14-0 midway through the third quarter.

As the fourth quarter began, Fort Bragg started to chew the clock, calling rushing plays to keep the clock running. But Kelseyville’s defense kept Strickland in check, at least in that drive, forcing the Timberwolves to punt.

The snap sailed over Ybarra’s head, and thought he was able to recover the ball, the Knights took over on Fort Bragg’s 37. Eight plays later, Yiggins, Kelseyville’s leading rusher, took the handoff from Barrick and ran almost untouched up the middle for an 8-yard score.

Kelseyville was within striking distance, trailing 14-7 with about five minutes to go in the game.

But Fort Bragg nailed the coffin shut on its next possession on a spectacular play by Triplett.

On the Knights’ 27, Triplett took the snap, looked, scrambled, looked some more, and finally found his favorite target — Giaccani — open for the pass. On the far side of the field, Giaccani danced into the end zone for the score.

“We just put that play into practice,” Perkins said. “We flood one side and bring Shane in behind the others. It opened up just like we thought it would. We saved it for the right time.”

A blocked kick made the score 20-7 Fort Bragg with two minutes left in the game.

Kelseyville, while disappointed, was pleased to have made it this far in the playoffs, Larsen said.

“We lost it together,” Larsen said, as his seniors took photos together after the game. “But they end the game as winners. We accomplished a lot more than others thought we could.”

NCL I league champion Fort Bragg’s path to the semis was easier than the Knights’. The Timberwolves won a first-round bye, then pounded No. 7 Ferndale, 35-0, last week.

Kelseyville, which tied for third place in the NCL I, defeated No. 11 Arcata before squeaking out an upset against No. 3 Middletown, 14-12, last week.

Sports writer Lori A. Carter can be reached at 707-521-5470 or at loricarter@pressdemocrat.com