FRESNO —They had it.
Fourth-seed Porterville High School football was leading top-seeded Washington Union in the Central Section Division IV semifinals 23-20 with less than three minutes to play.
It was a slim margin, but after two previous outings by their defense that resulted in an interception by Adam Daguman and then a fumble recovery from Hayden Scott, a defensive stop to put the ball back into the offense hands seemed likely.
Instead, Union (11-1) playing with all the will of a team who had watched two of their players lay motionless on the field before being carted off, powered the ball downfield for a 27-23 win on Friday. From their own 20-yard line, Union needed just three plays to reach Porterville's 39-yard line. In a game full of emotion, it felt as if the game would come down to who could keep their cool in the last few minutes, and unfortunately for Porterville (8-5), that proved to be Union after the Panthers were flagged for a personal foul after a play.
The penalty, on top of the fact that Porterville had yet to stop Union from picking up first down after first down, inched Union closer to the Panthers' 20-yard line. Three handoffs to Union's Asonii McDowell put the team on the Panthers' 3-yard line. From there, it was an easy run in for WUHS quarterback, Lawrence Stell and Canaan Campbell's PAT went through the uprights to make it a four-point game with only 39 seconds left.
On the ensuing kickoff, things once again didn't go Porterville's way and Javier Benevidez's attempt at a backwards pass was intercepted. On that kickoff, the Panthers were also called for a holding penalty, and even though Union also received a penalty, Porterville didn't get the ball back and Union kneeled it out.
After the game, PHS head coach Michael Machado told the team that the loss would sting for sometime but that what the players felt now would "drive them" in years to come.
At the start of the game, Porterville struggled offensively and were trailing 6-0 at the end of the first quarter after Stell scored on a 23-yard run. But in the second, Jacob Ellis intercepted Stell in the end zone, which set up the Panthers' first scoring drive. Porterville finished the drive with a 6-yard run by Isaiah Ellis and a PAT from Nick Ward.
Union scored less than a minute later on the following drive but Porterville was able to hit back with a nine-play, 63-yard drive ending with a 10-yard run from Isaiah Ellis. However, Hector Nava Jr.'s pass on a 2-point conversion attempt was intercepted. The Panthers held the lead but on their next drive Nava Jr.'s interception was returned for a touchdown and the Panthers trailed again, this time 20-13 to end the half.
The Panthers took the lead in the fourth with Nava Jr. scoring on a 10-yard run and Ward kicking a 20-yard field goal, respectively, after the defensive plays from Daguman and Scott.