Tony Lewis balled up his fist, held it out over a sea of blue and delivered a post-game speech nearly two months in the making.
"Hey, if you didn't know what a fist was before tonight, I think you know now," the Merced College football coach said. "This was a total team victory, boys. There's no quit in this football team."
Reid Herchenbach scored the go-ahead touchdown in overtime and the Blue Devil defense snuffed out American River's two-point try moments later to secure a thrilling 21-20 victory Saturday evening at Don Odishoo Field.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Herchenbach turned a broken play into a 5-yard scoring run on the first possession of the extra period.
Feeling pressure from all sides, the sophomore quarterback scrambled forward and dove head-first between a pack of Beaver players -- extending the ball across the goal-line for a 21-14 lead.
The defense did the rest.
Linebacker Kahekili Kalalau crushed running back Derrick Watkins in the backfield on a risky two-point conversion attempt to set off a wild celebration near midfield.
"We've been waiting for this game for two weeks. We've been hungry for two weeks," towering defensive end Phillip Robertson said.
"We wanted to eat and that's what we did tonight."
If given another shot, American River coach Jerry Haflich said he would have called the exact same play -- no doubt about it.
"We were having trouble snapping the ball on our point-afters and we didn't want to risk it there," Haflich added. "We just gambled.
"You gotta believe in your kids, right?"
The win couldn't have come at a better time for the Blue Devils (2-4, 1-0 MEC), who stumbled into Mid-Empire Conference play on a two-game losing skid.
"This was an emotional one," Lewis said.
"We had a tough preseason. And even though there's a ton of games left, as coaches, we knew this would have been a hard one to come back from."
The Blue Devils, who led 7-0 at the intermission, spent most of the second half chasing the Beavers (2-4, 0-1).
Watkins rushed for 122 yards -- outgaining the entire MC offense by himself -- and pulled American River within one on a 10-yard run with 4:56 left in the third quarter.
Four minutes later, Brett Miller found paydirt from 7 yards out and
Taylor Cervantes scored on a two-point try to make it 14-7.
"I thought we were a little stale," Lewis said. "They had just scored to go ahead 14-7 and the mood on the sideline was down.
"Of course, I'm thinking we're still in this, but the kids all got a little quiet."
Enter Sam Toomer.
In the blink of an eye, Toomer raced 94 yards on the ensuing kickoff for the tying score.
The sophomore speedster fielded the boot at his own 6, followed lead blocker Marcus Robinson up the middle and then squirted out along the visitors' sideline.
It was a foot race from there.
Both defenses buckled down in the fourth. MC stuffed a fourth-and-2 with eight minutes left, and the Beavers blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt with 4:26 remaining.
Herchenbach's desperation heave at the gun was intercepted in the end zone.
The Golden Valley alum got the last laugh in overtime, though, picking up a pivotal first down with his arm and the eventual game-winner with his legs.
"What else can I say about Reid?" Lewis started. "He's a winner, a real competitor. You know, we understand that he's going to make some bad plays. But at the same time...
"We also know he'll make some really good ones, too."
James Burns is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2417 or via e-mail at email@example.com.