ESCONDIDO — It was happy returns that proved most crucial in the Southern Conference opener between Orange Coast College and Palomar on Saturday at Escondido High.
But the Pirates' 72-mile bus ride home did not turn out to be one of them.
Instead, host Palomar used a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and two long punt returns that also led to touchdowns to account for the bulk of its 38-16 triumph.
Though the Pirates fell to 1-3 and are now 5-24 in the last five-plus seasons in conference play, their visit to San Diego County was not altogether dour.
Freshman reserve quarterback Jack Foster, who played at Madison High in San Diego, came off the bench to complete 20 of 30 passes for 193 yards to help the visitors pare a once-14-point deficit to 24-16 with 5:06 left in the contest.
But that's when Palomar's Earvin Simmons broke the ensuing kickoff return for a touchdown to all but wrap up the win for the Comets (2-2).
Palomar's Damon Nolan bolted 35 yards with OCC's first punt to set up a seven-play, 26-yard touchdown drive that opened the scoring with 8:50 left in the first quarter.
When OCC went three-and-out on its ensuing possession, Nolan went 37 yards with Cameron Biedgoly's punt to set up a two-play, 32-yard touchdown drive.
A 59-yard pass from starter Jon Newsom to D.J. McFadden set up an 11-yard touchdown pass from Newsom to Dalis Bruce that put OCC on the board with 5:26 left in the first period.
But OCC's running game, once again, struggled and the two Pirates quarterbacks were sacked a combined eight times for 54 yards.
Adding to the bright spots for OCC, were field goals of 43, 30 and 22 yards by Griff Aimes, a former All-American at Corona del Mar High who had missed his first five field-goal tries of the season, but is now four for 10.
In addition, running back Tala Teaupa, a freshman out of Newport Harbor High, carried eight times to lead all OCC rushers with 38 yards. Teaupa also caught four passes for 47 yards, displaying a knack for weaving through traffic to maximize screens and dump passes in the flat.
The Pirates, who came in ranked last in the seven-team conference in rushing at barely more than 70 yards per game, gained just 72 yards on 39 attempts.
The OCC defense, which came in ranked last in the conference, allowed just 13 first downs, eight fewer than the Pirates recorded.
But kick coverage, and a lost Teaupa fumble that set up a Palomar field goal midway through the third quarter, proved too much to overcome.
"We battled until we gave up the kickoff return," said OCC Coach Mike Taylor, who noted the Pirates played without top defensive lineman Lear Schrader, who was hurt in practice during the week.
Taylor said Foster played well after Newsom was largely ineffective in the first half. Newsom was five for 13 for 103 yards and one TD, but most of that came on one catch-and-run to McFadden.
Palomar rolled up 232 rushing yards on 43 attempts, but with only 66 passing yards, OCC earned a 368-298 advantage in total offense.
Palomar 38, Orange Coast 16