Tackle of Sanchez sparks Tigers’ shutout of Warriors

Grand Junction linebacker Jonathan Pauli, 4, tackles Central’s Taylor Sanchez on Friday night during the second quarter of the Tigers’ 47-0 homecoming victory over the Warriors at Stocker Stadium. Zach Lebsock, far right, came in to help on the hit, forcing a fumble just before halftime near the goal line as Sanchez was trying to score. Grand Junction, the top-ranked team in Class 5A, took over to run the clock out in the first half.

Grand Junction’s Jerreon Dennis runs for a touchdown Friday night during the first half of the top-ranked Tigers’ 47-0 victory over the Central Warriors.

Grand Junction High School defensive back Zach Lebsock barreled toward the sideline Friday, closing the gap on Central quarterback Taylor Sanchez.

Helmets cracked four yards from the goal line, the ball sprung loose, and after the Tigers’ Aaron Minnick slid to recover the ball, lineman James Diamanti clenched his fists and howled in Stocker Stadium.

It was the third fumble recovery of the game for Grand Junction, which defeated Central 47-0.

And according to Diamanti, that wasn’t all it was.

“So far, it was the biggest hit of the year,” he said of Lebsock’s key hit.

Sanchez was shaken up on the second-quarter collision and did not return for the second half after rushing for 90 yards on 15 carries. Central coach Vern McGee said he kept Sanchez out for precautionary reasons with a possible concussion.

Top-ranked Grand Junction (6-0, 1-0 Southwestern Conference) utilized the fumble recoveries, as well as a Brett Labonte interception, to give its offense prime field position. Not that the offense needed it.

Tigers quarterback Sean Rubalcaba rushed for 63 yards and threw for 103, including a first-quarter 84-yard touchdown strike to Chandon Rose.

Running back Jerreon Dennis finished with 20 carries for 138 yards and three rushing touchdowns — two from 10 yards out and one from 4.

Grand Junction took a 28-0 lead into halftime and triggered a running clock midway through the third when Rubalcaba’s 4-yard touchdown run put the Tigers ahead 40-0.

Austin Lewis later scored on a 2-yard touchdown plunge, his first varsity touchdown.

But it primarily was Dennis finding the gaps he said were “as big as a truck.” Even when they weren’t, he was dragging defenders and patiently sidling through seams. Gratitude abounded after each romp.

“Right after the runs,” Dennis said, “I thank the offensive linemen and they thank me.”

With the Tigers offense minding its “Q’s,” the defense made sure the speedy Sanchez felt uncomfortable.

On Central’s first possession, Grand Junction linebacker Jonathan Pauli blitzed and knocked Sanchez as he attempted to pitch the ball. Grand Junction recovered at the Central 25, and Dennis later scored from 10 yards out.

Central (1-5, 0-2) lost another fumble at its own 25 in the second quarter, and once again, Grand Junction was in the backfield before Sanchez could hand the ball off.

This time, Jordan Jones interrupted an exchange and Diamanti recovered. Four plays later, Dennis scored on a fourth-and-goal from the Warriors’ 10.

“We were trying to put pressure on him because we wanted to blitz him a little bit just so he wouldn’t have time to sit back there and make plays,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said. “I think we’re a physical team and our defense played well.”

McGee agreed.

“You can’t turn the ball over that many times on a good football team, and they’re a good football team,” he said. “I coach the defense and I didn’t see our fumbles, so I didn’t know what happened on the fumbles. We’ll see it on film tonight.”

But he did see — and hear — Lebsock’s hit.

It stalled Central’s longest drive of the game, one that began at the Central 24 and was peppered with runs in which Sanchez cracked the Tigers’ secondary.

“(Sanchez) was trying to get in the end zone and that’s what happened,” McGee said. “It was just a good hit.”


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