Conventional wisdom had the Tulare Western Mustangs enduring some type of roller-coaster season in 2013.
The Mustangs were coming off an 0-10 season in 2012, and they were introducing a new coach in Ryan Rocha, his first year as a varsity head coach.
But Tulare Western’s 2013 campaign will go down in the history book as one of the most unbelievable turnarounds in Central Section history. And perhaps down the road, this season will be looked upon as the one that put the Mustangs on track to Tulare County prominence — no matter how disappointing the season came to an official close.
Tulare Western’s Cinderella season came to an end Thursday night in the Central Section Division III quarterfinals. No. 9 Independence defeated the top-seeded Mustangs 21-7 at Bob Mathias Stadium.
“Very proud of our seniors,” Rocha said. “They had to go through a lot of adversity. They had to decide this year if they’re going to listen to a new coach, or not listen and be miserable. Were they going to change their ways of doing things, or would they play with a chip on their shoulders all year? I can honestly say that every single kid gave it their heart and soul this year.
“The best way I can describe this team is that they came out for every single game thinking they can win. The kids bought into what we trying to do, and I’m forever grateful for that. I’m very proud of them.”
Conventional wisdom might have pointed out that Tulare Western (7-4) should have taken care of business against a team that finished the regular season with a 4-6 record, but Independence was no ordinary No. 9 seed for the Division III bracket.
Five of the Falcons’ six losses were to Southwest Yosemite League foes (all Division I teams), and the experience of playing in of the section’s most prominent leagues paid off for them.
Independence (6-6) took advantage of Tulare Western mistakes, and controlled the game throughout the second half.
Tulare Western scored on the game’s opening possession with a 13-yard touchdown run by quarterback Kobe Portillo. It stayed 7-0 in the Mustangs’ favor until the final stages of the second quarter.
The Mustangs made a couple of costly mistakes on a possession that started deep inside their territory. The most damaging miscue was a fumble inside the 10-yard-line that was kicked out of the end zone for a safety.
“That was the turning point,” Rocha said.
On the ensuing series following the free kick, Independence put together a five-play, 51-yard scoring drive to take an 8-7 lead with 30 seconds left before halftime.
Tulare Western’s ill-timed bout with ineptness continued to begin the third quarter. The Falcons’ Paul Fields picked off a Portillo pass and returned it to the Mustang 1. Independence quarterback Jordan Wiley scored on a 1-yard sneak to extend the Falcons’ lead to 15-7.
The Mustangs reached Falcon territory on their next two possessions, but were unable to put any points on the scoreboard. Tulare Western also had a second-quarter series reach the Falcon 14, but it was thwarted by penalties and a sack.
“You knew coming into the season that [Independence] was going to be in the playoffs. They’re a solid, physical team. They had good experience playing in their league. Their defense played well, and they put their offense in really good scoring position. And the offense did a good job taking advantage of those situations,” Rocha said.
Tulare Western encountered some major problems trying to muster up any semblance of a productive offense in the second half.
The Mustangs were limited to 69 yards of total offense over the final two quarters – just four yards rushing on six carries – and four first downs.
Portillo finished 12-of-22 passing for 159 yards with two interceptions. The Mustangs had 50 yards rushing.
Wiley was 16-of-22 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Dennis Reed caught both touchdown passes for 16 and 19 yards, respectively.
Independence will visit the winner of No. 5 Dinuba (7-3) and No. 4 South (8-2) in the semifinals.