The opportunities were there.
After a 2-3 start to the season in nonconference play, the Fruita Monument High School football team rolled through the Pioneer Conference to set up Friday's winner-take-all game at Stocker Stadium with Vista PEAK Prep.
The Wildcats' offense stalled inside the Bison 32-yard line five times in a 35-21 loss. The No. 6 Bison (10-0, 5-0 Pioneer) outscored Fruita 20-0 in the second half without throwing a pass.
Despite falling short of the conference crown, the Wildcats, who entered the night No. 10 in RPI, are still likely to make the 16-team Class 4A playoff field.
"The big factors were big plays and turning the ball over," said Fruita coach Cameron Ross. "Our offense turned the ball over several times and they were able to take advantage of that. Giving up big plays is huge."
Wasted scoring chances were Fruita's ultimate undoing. Ethan Cox fumbled at the Vista PEAK 20 in the second quarter and Denim Luster fumbled at the 32 in the third before the biggest call of the night doomed the Wildcats (6-4, 4-1 Pioneer) with 8 minutes left.
Trailing 28-21 and facing a 4th and 2 at the Bison 30, quarterback Kade Bessert pitched the football to Luster to the right. Luster stumbled and was nearly brought down behind the line of scrimmage, but he managed to stay on his feet and dive forward toward the first-down marker.
After the officials brought the chains onto the field, the Wildcats were given the first down. However, the officials took a closer look and determined the ball was just short.
Vista PEAK then embarked on a nearly 4-minute drive, culminating in a 12-yard touchdown run by Montral Hamrick to push the lead to two scores.
"We just had too many mental mistakes," said senior wide receiver and defensive back Caleb Sakala. "Putting the ball on the ground, too many penalties, we can't have that if we want to go deep into the postseason. Vista PEAK's a great team. They just did a better job holding onto the ball than we did."
Sakala caught seven passes for 69 yards, all in the fourth quarter, and picked off Bison quarterback Victor Owens at midfield before halftime.
Special teams were the dominant unit for Fruita to open the game. Armony Trujillo returned the opening kickoff to the Vista PEAK 33, leading to a 4-yard touchdown run by Luster 1:38 into the game.
After a bizarre Bison touchdown drive that included a 1st and 41 before JaDerris Carr-Kersch scored on an 18-yard run, the Wildcats' special teams shined again.
Calvin Nycum, who challenged Bessert for the starting quarterback job before the season, caught the ensuing kickoff at the 15 and raced down the left sideline for an 85-yard touchdown and a 14-8 lead.
After Cox's fumble with 5:11 left before halftime, Carr-Kersch imitated Nycum's return, breaking several tackles before racing down the left sideline, to make the score 15-14.
Luster's 58-yard touchdown run on a option pitch put Fruita ahead 21-15 at halftime.
Luster finished with 15 carries for 158 yards.
The Bison stuck to the ground after halftime. Carr-Kersch scored on a 5-yard run with 7:15 to go in the third to give Vista PEAK the lead for good, 22-21, before extending the lead to 28-21 with a 6-yard plunge with 11:21 left in the game.
The junior torched the Wildcats for 236 yards and four touchdowns.
Fruita put together two more potential scoring drives after falling behind two scores, but one ended in Bessert fumbling at the 10 and the other ended when time ran out after Sakala caught a pass to move the offense into the red zone.
With a chance at the Pioneer title gone, the Wildcats must move on to whichever team they draw in the postseason.
"This isn't the end," Ross said. "We've bounced back in the past after a loss and proven we can bounce back and perform well. That's what we've got to do."