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Foothill can’t slow down top-seeded Chico in 46-7 D-II semifinal loss

Foothill's Wyatt Aitchison stiffarms Chico High's Willy Baker during the Cougar's playoff game against the Panthers on Friday, November 22, 2019, in Chico, California. (Matt Bates -- Enterprise-Record)
CHICO — It wasn’t just that Chico High looked for a fast start against Foothill in the Northern Section Division II football semifinals; the Panthers wanted to take away any and all hope the Cougars had of pulling off an upset.

Just two weeks before Friday’s game, Chico closed the regular season with a 44-23 win over Foothill on the same Chico High turf. The Cougars scored a pair of touchdowns late, and though the game’s outcome wasn’t altered, it reinforced to the Panthers that given an opportunity, Foothill could easily hang around.

Chico left next to nothing up for grabs in the rematch. The top-seeded Panthers (10-1) defeated No. 4 Foothill 46-7 with three quick-strike scores in the opening quarter, while holding Foothill scoreless until the fourth.

Jake Hamman threw for 183 yards and three touchdowns — two of them to Willy Baker — Jalen Johnson rushed for 118 yards and two scores and the Panthers defense, led by Baker, Gustavo Ramos and Atticus Mikles, forced the Cougars into three interceptions in the first half.

“Probably the best thing about going fast was just ending it quick,” Johnson said. “Running up the score on them — that just kind of lost their hope.”

The win gave Chico another chance to host a section championship, and another shot to dethrone defending section champion Pleasant Valley, which took down Shasta 21-7 on the road Friday as the No. 3 seed.

“All week we were preaching, we need to come out of the gates (with) good energy, good focus, good execution, and to watch that happen, I was really proud of the kids,” Chico head coach Jason Alvistur said.

“We wanted to crush hope. They scored a couple of touchdowns late (last game) on us, and I think they had some hope they could play with us. We were like, ‘we’re playing this team again. We need to stomp it out and we need to get it going.’ That’s kind of the mentality we set this week, and it was fun to see it get played out like that.”

Chico found a good balance of running and passing early, but the passing game soared to another level with Hamman completing his first eight passes, and only missing two of his 16 attempts on the night. On Chico’s opening drive, the junior rolled out to his left and lofted a 23-yard pass to an open Baker near the end zone for a score.

The Panthers have come to expect nothing less from their first-year starter.

“The kid has a cool demeanor,” Alvistur said. “He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low. When he makes a great play, he’s just like, ‘yep.’ When he messes up, he’s like, ‘yep.’ He’s been very coachable all year. I’m so proud of him. When you come into a season and you have a junior quarterback, there’s a lot of question marks … And boxes got checked as we went along. He’s a really good football player.”

Chico’s second drive, coming after a Foothill punt, took all of one play for Johnson to find an extra gear and outrun the Cougars for a 62-yard score. Then after a second Foothill punt, the Panthers drove inside the 20-yard line in just five plays. From the 13-yard line, Hamman regathered a low snap out of the shotgun, rolled to his right and found Baker, who cut inside and scored his second touchdown.

“I just knew he was going to be over on that side,” Hamman said. “I rolled out, he was just sitting there and I hit him. He did the rest.”

Foothill’s Brandon Merryman fires a pass during the Cougar’s playoff game against Chico High on Friday, November 22, 2019, in Chico, California. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)

Johnson added his second touchdown after Baker intercepted Foothill’s Brandon Merryman in the end zone. The Cougars had driven inside of the Chico 20 after Wyatt Aitchison broke a 38-yard run at the end of the first quarter.

Later in the second quarter, as Foothill (6-6) faced 3rd-and-9 near midfield, Ramos stepped in front of a Merryman pass near the Chico sideline, hauled it into his grasp and was able to get both feet in bounds for the Panthers’ second pick.

Hamman then found Abe Del Real for an 8-yard touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half.

“Jake is very calm. He responds well to pressure,” Johnson said. “He’s always calm and he’s always (making) the right decision. I’m glad to have him on my team.”

Johnson did all of his damage in the first half, and that was fine with him. The Panthers turned to Deshawn Kelley, who added 45 yards on the ground, to finish the game. Kelley scored from 3 yards out with less than two minutes to go in the third quarter, giving Chico its largest lead, 40-0.

Merryman scored the Cougars’ lone touchdown on a 9-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Next week, the Chico will play PV on the same stage that the Vikings won 20-17 last year. The Panthers got a taste of revenge earlier this year in the Almond Bowl with a 20-10 win over PV. This next game, however, is the one Chico has truly been waiting for.

“We’re definitely coming with some revenge,” Johnson said. “We want that back, definitely. That was a hard loss that we took. To go that far and come up short like that.”

“We want payback from last year,” Hamman said. “We’re going to come out and give it our all. We’re excited for it.”

The score

Chico 46, Foothill 7

Up next: NSCIF Division II Championship, 7 p.m. Nov. 30

Will Denner is a sports reporter at the Chico Enterprise-Record. A native of Portland, Oregon, Will graduated from the University of Oregon in 2016.

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