Leopards lose close game on opening night

Freshman wide receiver Ronald Ropke outruns Willamette defenders for a 26-yard return Saturday at Ortmayer Stadium. The Leopards opened their season against the Bearcats but fell short, 24-21. / photo by Amanda Torres
Freshman wide receiver Ronald Ropke outruns Willamette defenders for a 26-yard return Saturday at Ortmayer Stadium. The Leopards opened their season against the Bearcats but fell short, 24-21. / photo by Amanda Torres

Sheridan Lambrook
Staff Writer

Saturday nights are back at Ortmayer Stadium. The La Verne football team took on the Willamette Bearcats last weekend but fell short, 24-21.

The new season has brought a lot of new faces. Senior wide receiver Noah Geeser has been with the team for three seasons.

 “It is different because the team is a lot younger with a lot of freshmen and transfers than in the past,” Geeser said.  “We’ve all really brought in with this program and the culture that we want to build in the future.”

La Verne looked to sophomore quarterback Trevor Tedesco to start the season off right. With six minutes left in the first quarter, Tedesco’s handoff to freshman running back Jonathan Berus resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run. Junior kicker Max Jimenez nailed the extra point to give the Leopards a 7-0 lead.

Willamette tried to fire back, but it was intercepted by junior linebacker De Lante’ Moore, who returned it 45 yards for a pick-six. Jimenez was successful with yet another extra point to put the Leopards up, 14-0.

Moore had a successful night with seven tackles, six being solo, and the pick six he was waiting for.

“When I lined up I knew where I had to drop to,” Moore said. “Coach (Chris) Krich always told me if someone is gonna pass on you, you always gotta look if something is coming towards you, so I looked, I saw the tight end coming in. I looked at the quarterback, and – boom – the ball was in the air, and it was mine. I caught it and took it back for the six.”

Early in the second quarter, Tedesco’s pass was intercepted by Willamette junior defensive back Landon Waters. 

Willamette turned the interception into a determined drive. 

With eight plays, 49 yards and an incomplete pass, the team went for the field goal from junior kicker Camdin Dirnberger of the Bearcats. 

With 11 minutes left in the quarter, La Verne held a 14-3 lead.

Both teams received penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct on first-and-10 at La Verne’s 18-yard line. Willamette freshman quarterback Micha Ho’Omanawanui followed with a complete pass to freshman tight end Mason LaPlante, scoring them a touchdown to fuel their comeback. A second kick from Dirnberger made it through the La Verne goal post, making the score 14-10.

With La Verne at first-and-10, Waters got his second interception of the night, this time taking it back for a touchdown. A third kick from Dirnberger was successful and Willamette took the lead, 17-14.

Coming into the second half, La Verne’s defense was lock-down. Sophomore safety Chase Yanez would not let the Bearcats past him in their attempts from the 43-yard line. Their time with the ball ended when Moore hurried Ho’Omanawanui, leaving the play as an incomplete pass. Both teams played solid defense as they drove the ball back and forth until the end of the third quarter with no change in score.

“In the moment going into the second half we came out with high energy due to the momentum we built up in the first half,” Yanez said.

Senior outside linebacker Oscar Montenegro is congratulated by teammates while running off the field after a defensive play against Willamette on Saturday night at Ortmayer Stadium. The Leopards lost to the Bearcats, 24-21. / photo by Amanda Torres

The fourth quarter started on a false start by Willamette. The Bearcats made three plays that sent the Leopards back 16 yards. Tedesco could not complete his passes, leading to a punt by La Verne freshman kicker Sean Garvey, who sent it out of bounds. Back on defense, both Yanez and Moore were playing lights out defense, holding the Bearcats to the 30-yard line.

With 10 minutes remaining in the game, senior linebacker Oscar Montenegro took a chance and intercepted the pass from Ho’Omanawanui. Within four plays, the Leopards took back their lead with a score of 21-17 after junior wingback Juan Gutierrez rushed 22 yards for the touchdown, and yet another extra point by Jimenez. 

With a win at stake, the Willamette offense came out strong, rushing the ball 68 yards with just five plays and 1:47 of possession. A touchdown was clocked in at 6:55 by junior wide receiver Justin Genovia, and a point-earning kick from Dirnberger. 

With La Verne focused on rushing to win this game, junior quarterback Nick Garcia was brought in to lead the offense. After an incomplete pass, the Leopards were sent back 10 yards from a sack from the Bearcats’ defense.

But the Leopards fought back with two minutes left in the game. After incomplete passes, Garcia took it upon himself to rush for four yards before La Verne called their first out of three timeouts within their 12 plays. Garcia faced two sacks back-to-back from the Bearcats’ defense  and fumbled possession and Willamette recovered it in the last 17 seconds.

“After this loss and watching the film, I realize our potential and I expect us to have a good season  and hopefully flip the script of who we are as a team,” sophomore tight end Julian Martinez said.

The Leopards’ next game is at 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. This rematch has been four years in the making since the last matchup in the 2019 season where Puget Sound found victory, 28-24.

La Verne opens Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play Sept. 23 at Pomona-Pitzer and return home to face Redlands at 1 p.m. Sept. 30.

Sheridan Lambrook can be reached at sheridan.grenda@laverne.edu.

Graduate defensive lineman and punter Anthony Esquivel cheers on his team from the sidelines Saturday night at Ortmayer Stadium. The Leopards had a close game against the Willamette Bearcats but lost in the last quarter 24-21. / photo by Amanda Torres

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