Question: How do you stop a 5'11", 200 lb running back with sprinter speed, fullback power and a linebacker mentality?
Answer: You don't.
The Imperial Tigers, the 2011 Imperial Valley League champions, won their opening round Division IV playoff game against a pesky Del Norte Nighthawk squad, 47-30 on Friday. The Tigers rode the back of their sophomore sensation, RB Royce Freeman, who ran for nearly 300 yards and 6 TDs. Freeman may be the best athlete in the San Diego Section that you've never heard of, but he's making his presence known as he has rushed for over 2,000 yards on the season, finding the end zone 35 times.
Imperial opened the scoring mid-way through the first quarter, when Freeman's 10-yard scoring run capped an 11-play drive. But Del Norte would respond on their next possession, as QB Alex Dion (235 yds passing, 3 TDs on the night) connected with WR Chad Wetzler on a 20-yard TD pass. The extra point attempt, however, failed due to a poor snap, allowing Imperial to maintain a 7-6 lead.
Royce Freeman would then find the endzone again on a 29-yard run on Imperial's next possession. He followed that by powering in from 3-yards out 4 minutes later, giving Imperial a 21-6 lead. But Del Norte would counter in the final minute of the half, as Dion found Wayne Ganan for a 20-yard score. The two-point conversion attempt failed (Del Norte was 0-4 on two-point conversions on the evening), and Imperial went into the locker room with a 21-12 halftime lead.
In the second half, Imperial wasted no time getting on the board again, as on the first play of the third quarter, Royce Freeman broke through the Nighthawk defense and rambled 71 yards for the score, extending the Tigers lead to 28-12. But Del Norte countered quickly, as the Nighthawks 8-play drive culminated in a 7-yard TD pass from Dion to HB Patrick Zeller. The 2-point conversion was again no good, as Del Norte narrowed the margin to 28-18. Then, in the final seconds of the third quarter, the Nighthawk kick coverage unit - which has been a weak spot for Del Norte all season long - gave up an 87 yard kickoff return for a TD by Marcelluz Smith, extending the Tigers lead to 16.
But the Nighthawks roared right back as a reserve tailback (brought up from a JV squad that won the Valley League with a 9-1 record), sprinted 34 yards for the score. Once again, 2-pt. attempt was no good as Del Norte brought it back to within 10 points. But Royce Freeman wasn't done, as on the Tiger's next possession, he banged in from 3-yards out to make the score 40-24.
The Nighthawks refused to relent as Alex Dion orchestrated another successful drive that ended with him crashing through from one yard out to make the score, 40-30. But Royce Freeman had one more ace up his sleeve, as with just minutes to play, he outran the Nighthawk defense for a 64-yard score, making the final tally, 47-30.
Del Norte QB Alex Dion played his finest game of the season, leading the second half charge and keeping the Nighthawks in the game until the end. He didn't always get much help from his receiving corps who dropped at least four well thrown passes throughout the night. The most telling was a pass off a fake punt attempt that went through the hands of a wide open Matt Long.
With the loss, Del Norte closes the book on a successful 2011 campaign, where they went 4-7 and earned a first-ever playoff berth in the schools short (3 year) history. The victory extends the Tigers winning streak to 8 games, as they will now move on to the Division IV quarterfinals for a re-match with Santana High next Friday night.