Friday's semifinal game was going mostly according to plan for Pioneer Valley.

Then, in the third quarter, as the Panthers were executing their offensive game plan and primed to extend their lead, disaster struck.

Pioneer Valley quarterback Richie Robles broke off a run through the middle of the Morro Bay defense. Toward the end of that run, a Morro Bay defender popped the ball loose and the Pirates recovered it.

Morro Bay promptly marched down the field to score and take a 21-20 lead. The game changed in the blink of an eye. Morro Bay carried that wave of momentum to a 29-26 win over the Panthers, advancing to play at top seeded Taft in the CIF Central Section Division 6 title game next week. 

Morro Bay's junior quarterback Nicky Johnson threw four touchdown passes, two each to Christian Merrill and Ethan Lisman. 

"We're creating our own legacy," Johnson said. "We're trying to turn this program around from how it was a couple years ago. We're leaving our mark and setting the trend for future kids coming through here."

Morro Bay is now 6-6 on the season. The Pirates went 1-4 in the spring and 3-8 in the 2019 season. Current coach Jake Goossen-Brown took over the program after its 1-9 2018 campaign.

Pioneer Valley played a tremendous first half Friday. The Panther defense forced a three-and-out on the opening possession and the Panther offense took the ball and scored on a 10-yard touchdown for an early lead. The score was set up by a 52-yard Rudy Mendez run on the first play from scrimmage for the Panthers. Mendez carried the ball about 30 times as the Panthers wore down the Pirate defense.  

After the Robles score, Lisman began to trouble the Panthers. Lisman returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to the Pioneer Valley 9 and the Pirates scored on a 4-yard pass from Nicky Johnson to Merrill to tie the game. 

The Panthers relied on the rushing of Mendez again to drive the length of the field and once again scored on a Robles run. 

The Pirates tied the score on a Johnson pass, this time with the quarterback linking up with Lisman on a 24-yard scoring strike. 

The Panthers, once again, responded and regained the lead with a 5-yard Mendez run with 48 seconds left in the first half. The point-after try failed when Robles took a low snap off the turf and tried to make a play but was stopped. 

Pioneer Valley received the opening kickoff and Mendez ran the Panthers into Morro Bay territory. Robles ran on third and short and picked up the first down, but was hit near the end of a run up the middle and the Pirates recovered the loose ball at their own 12-yard line. 

Johnson then engineered a scoring drive, capped with his second touchdown pass to Merrill, with the Panther coaching staff pleading with officials for an offensive pass interference penalty that never came on the play in the back of the end zone. 

Lisman hit the PAT and the Pirates led 21-20 with 2:52 left in the third quarter. The Panthers still had life though.

Robles then marched his offense down the field, providing a huge spark on a fourth-and-six run where he picked up 40 yards down to the Pirate 9. Robles then scored from five yards out for his third touchdown of the night. The Panthers threw on the two-point try but it was incomplete, meaning Pioneer Valley led 26-21 with 8:34 left in the game. 

Johnson again drove the Pirates down the field. On third and six, Johnson hit Lisman on a crossing pattern near the Panther sideline and Lisman made a defender miss with a move to the inside of the field. Dylan Turner ran in the two-point try and the Pirates led 29-26 with 5:30 on the clock. 

The Panthers then committed another turnover on the ensuing kickoff, though the Panther defense was able to keep the Pirates out of the end zone and ultimately force a turnover on downs. 

The Panthers were able to move the ball, with a completion to Adan Rubalcava moving the chains. Then, facing a third and long, Robles threw up a pass toward his own sideline and Morro Bay's Johnny Botello came down with it. The Pirates took a couple knees and closed out the win.

The Pirates, the No. 2 seed in Division 6, will play at No. 1 seed Taft next week for the Division 6 championship. The Panthers went 0-7 in the regular season and beat No. 6 Caruthers 14-7 in overtime in the quarterfinals last week. 

They were a play or two away from advancing to the championship game. 

"These guys freaking battled, they absolutely battled," said first-year coach Dustin Davis. "No one expected us to be here, but we won last week. It's a hard thing taking over (the program) in mid-July and I told them from day one that we weren't going to use that as an excuse and we got better every week. I'm impressed with that. We had to fight through, like many schools, challenges with COVID and we had injuries and everything else. 

"The guys that are here, the guys that stayed, gave it everything they had. I'm disappointed we lost, but I'm not disappointed in the fact that we got here."

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