By: Gehrig Parker
A fireworks show of offense kicked-off International Bowl XI inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but a late-game defensive play proved to be the difference in Team Panama’s 45-41 win over the U.S. Under-16 Selects.
Panama scored the eventual game-winning touchdown with a little over two minutes to go in the fourth quarter when quarterback Oslvaldo Heilbron found his favorite target and game MVP, Eduardo Joly, for their fourth touchdown connection of the morning on a fourth-and-3 heave.
“On fourth-and-3, they were all over my right-side outside receiver,” said Panama head coach Eric Holland. “Our quarterback is a good athlete and was able to see the third option and made the throw. It could’ve gone either way, but it ended up in our hands. It was a great game and super fun to be a part of.”
The U.S. turned around and started its two-minute drill fast and furious, with quarterback Connor Clark (Raleigh [N.C.] Cardinal Gibbons High School) finding Trai Ferguson (Richmond [Va.] Trinity Episcopal School) for pickups of 38 yards and 9 yards, respectively. A 15-yard roughing the passer penalty brought the Americans to Panama’s 16-yard line, but that’s as far as they’d make it as a trick play reverse pass by Ferguson was picked off by Panama defensive back Daniel Vallarino to solidify the victory.
Team Panama – nicknamed the Sharks – relied on a steady passing attack all morning long en route for its 45-point performance. Heilbron finished the day 24-of-42 for 276 yards and six touchdowns, four of which were hauled in by Joly (6 catches, 45 yards). Wide receivers Felipe Tristan (8 catches, 96 yards) and Camilo Gomez (3 catches, 66 yards) were the recipients of the other two touchdown passes.
The U.S. was just as impressive offensively, matching Panama at every turn. The balanced run and pass game (124 yards rushing, 262 yards passing) was led by Ferguson, who was Mr. Do-It-All for the Americans, snagging seven catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns. Their running game was led by the trio of Salisbury’s (Md.) JyMikaah Wells (4 carries, 55 yards, TD), Spanaway’s (Wash.) Jalen Davenport (12 carries, 56 yards) and Muncie’s (Ind.) Shoka Griffin (9 carries, 33 yards, TD).
After allowing three touchdowns on Panama’s first three offensive possessions of the first quarter, the U.S. defense seemed to be turning the tide, limiting the Panamanians to zero first downs and 10 total yards in the second quarter. However, the Sharks returned from halftime and found their offensive mojo once again, scoring on their first two drives highlighted by a 65-yard touchdown run by Panama running back Joshua Scott, which gave the Sharks a 32-27 lead.
“We saw that they adjusted their defense, and I had to find the holes to make some plays work,” said Holland. “The running game came back in the second half, and the long touchdown run put us back in the game. Little by little we saw them giving us the shorter routes and nothing down the field, and we were able to create space and make the plays we needed to down the stretch.”
The U.S. responded and retook the lead with a seven-play, 62-yard drive, capped by a 29-yard touchdown dash by Wells.
The American defense then got a much-needed stop but gave the ball right back when Panama defensive back Luis Moralez picked off Clark.
Panama would score its final two offensive possessions to capture the win in the first game of International Bowl XI, which Coach Eric Holland hopes turns some heads.
“The week has been super, and we’ve had nothing but support and assistance with everything,” said Holland. “We have a couple kids looking to get some scholarships, and it’s hard for some of these kids when nobody sees you, so this is a little window for people to get a look at some of the talent we have and hopefully they get the chance.”