In what was supposed to be the battle of the top two rushers in the valley, Trae Riek had no problem being under the spotlight all by himself.
The Palm Desert senior running back put on a clinic running the ball, going over, around and through defenders on his way to 456 yards and four touchdowns on the ground to lead the Aztecs to a critical 52-35 win over previously unbeaten Cathedral City on Friday at home.
The game was an important one for both teams, as they attempt to snag one of the three automatic Desert Valley League playoff spots up for grabs.
“This gives us a legitimate chance for the top three in the DVL,” Palm Desert head coach Pat Blackburn said. “And we needed this win. It’s huge.”
In front of a crowd of more than 1,500, Riek carried the ball a career-high 42 times and had all four of his touchdowns and 299 of his yards in the first half as Palm Desert jumped out to a 28-7 lead.
The Lions were forced to make due without the valley’s leading rusher, Orlando Wallace, who was suspended after being ejected in Cathedral City’s previous game last Friday. In his absence, the Lions struggled to run the ball, racking up just 82 yards on the ground.
But the biggest problem for the Lions was stopping Riek, who had eight carries of more than 20 yards. Blackburn said he wanted to see if the Lions could stop the run. When Cathedral City couldn’t, he exploited the weakness time and again.
“They have a really good team,” Riek said of the Lions. “But our offensive line did great. They were opening up holes and I’m just proud of them. That allowed me to do what I did tonight.”
Trailing by three touchdowns in the second quarter, the Lions made a run to make the game interesting headed into halftime. Senior James Rodriguez scored three times — two receiving and one on an incredible 92-yard kickoff return — during a 21-point stretch for the Lions.
Still, without Wallace in the second half, the Lions could not sustain consistent offensive momentum.
Coming off a bye week, the Aztecs’ defense held its own, keeping the explosive Cathedral City offense to just seven points in the second half.
Aside from Wallace, the Lions were also without Sergio Hernandez, an important two-way player who sprained his ankle last Friday.
There’s no telling how the two could have made a difference.
“We always talk about ‘Next man in,’ ” Cathedral City head coach Richard Lee said. “But losing Orlando and even Sergio hurt us. I have to give (Palm Desert) credit, though, they played great. We just couldn’t get stops.”
Palm Desert players and coaches said having two weeks to prepare for Cathedral City was important. Senior quarterback Kyle Kabeary, who also starts at safety, said the defense worked on press coverage for the last two weeks, and it paid off.
Yet it may not have been Riek or the defense that made the biggest difference. Kabeary said it may have been the two weeks the players had to think about how they wanted the rest of their season to unfold.
“With a week off, we definitely had a lot of time to think,” Kabeary said.
“We had a lot of senior meetings, team meetings about how we’re a family, but we don’t really play like it. Tonight, I thought we stepped up and played like a family and got this big win to help our season.”