Advice On Watching 8-Man Football: Don’t Blink
…Continued from the previous post.
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. That goes double when you are playing for the right to advance to the CIF Southern Section 8-Man Football Championship. Especially when you are the owners of a 7-4 record, and you’re playing against an 11-0 powerhouse.
Such is the case when you are a member of the Windward Wildcats.
To lend support to their efforts against the heavily favored Faith Baptist Contenders, I had braved L.A.’s 405 freeway on a Saturday during the Christmas shopping season. Embedded war correspondents have it cushy by comparison.
As for that “ever so humble” thing, it’s a perfect description of the athletic complex at Windward. Sandwiched into a parcel of land scarcely larger than the average dog park are the Wildcats’ baseball, softball and football playing fields. Suffice to say, there’s some overlap.
While 8-man football may consist of reduced roster sizes and smaller fields (just 80 yards long), if I had any inclination to devalue the skill level of the players, all I had to do was remind myself of this: Just across town in the L.A. Coliseum, where USC was preparing to host Notre Dame, the quarterback ready to enter the game should anything happen to the Trojan’s starter Mitch Mustain was John Manoogian – Windward High School, Class of 2009.
Manoogian’s alma mater fielded a decidedly scrappy team that, despite suffering losses in 3 of their final 5 games of the season, had pulled it together in the playoffs. And they’d really hit their stride in the previous week’s quarter-finals with a 76-56 road win at Rolling Hills Prep. OK, make that their offense had really hit stride.
But there’s scrappy and determined, and then there’s just plain dominant. Faith Baptist’s average winning margin in the playoffs to date had been more than five touchdowns. So they had that going for them.
With that in mind, it was little wonder that I initially struggled to get my bearings once I had arrived at the game. Shockingly, I had been stuck in traffic – which caused me to miss the team introductions and the first few minutes of the game. Once inside the gate, I chose to support the home team and took up residence on the near sideline, alongside a team clad all in white, an enthusiastic cheerleading squad (if four cheerleaders constitutes a “squad”) and a solid contingent of vocal fans.
I watched this team run three unsuccessful plays which netted a loss of five yards. Only when they dropped back into punt formation did I take my first long look at the scoreboard – which revealed that Windward was leading 14-0.
It was then it finally dawned on me that the team that had scored two quick touchdowns was actually the one on the far sideline. The one with somewhat smaller players wearing black uniforms. The one supported by a much more reserved fan base. The home team – Windward. Make that the heavy underdog home team.
I never did find out how the Wildcats had acquired that quick lead, but at the half Windward led 20-18, holding on to the thin advantage that those two early touchdowns had provided. For their part, after that rocky start, Faith Baptist had been able to move the football with much more ease. But each time it appeared that they would take the lead and not look back, they had insisted on shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and penalties.
The halftime air was sweet perfume, as Don Mclean might say (well OK, he actually did say that). Colleges were on break, and all of the Windward alums were back in town. They took over the field when the Wildcats went to their locker room and Faith Baptist went to their…well, to their shady trees.
The air was full of footballs and laughter as dozens of people reveled in that most cherished of school traditions – coming home. Even the young kids over on the baseball diamond took time away from digging up the pitcher’s mound to run around aimlessly on the gridiron. Football doesn’t get any better than this.
It had been a sloppy game for the first two quarters, and when the teams took the field to start the second half, they still hadn’t gotten the kinks out. Silly penalties – offsides, false starts, and delays of game – slowed both teams. While I had been pleasantly surprised that the 8-man game featured the same physical capabilities found at larger schools, what gave me pause was the number of mental mistakes made. I wondered if concentration was somehow the sole province of those who can run a 4.4 forty or throw the ball 70 yards in the air.
Strangely enough, the thing that eventually brought focus to the game was an injury. Late in the third quarter, a Faith Baptist player went down awkwardly on one play – and stayed down. As in not-moving-stayed-down.
The body language of those attending to the fallen player was not such that you feared anything like paralysis or other serious injury, but to the credit of everyone concerned, they chose to keep the player on the ground until professionals could take over. The EMTs arrived to transport him to the hospital, and when the ambulance rolled off the field and turned on its lights for its trip, it was as if a light switch had similarly been thrown on the field. The game went from sloppy to electric.
Windward’s moribund offense moved right down the field and scored on a modified “hook and ladder” trick play. They missed the extra point however, keeping Faith Baptist within one touchdown and a two-point conversion. Which the Contenders promptly scored less than two minutes later. The game was tied at 26.
And the Contenders weren’t done. An interception on Windward’s next possession was quickly capitalized upon, and Faith Baptist finally had their first lead at 34-26.
Three touchdowns in three minutes. You started getting the feeling that virtually anything was possible.
Moving in for the kill, Faith Baptist drove deep into Wildcat territory as the fourth quarter began to wind down. Windward held though, taking over on downs at their own 22-yard line. Their subsequent drive stalled at the Contender 15-yard line, and faced with a fourth and four, they went for the first down. With the season on the line, here’s what happened…
The jubilation of having converted the needed three yards into a touchdown was short-lived though, as the two-point conversion try failed, and the Wildcats still trailed 34-32.
Game over? Not by a long shot.
Windward kicked off and dug in on defense. Four plays later they fielded a punt. Three plays after that they scored both a go-ahead touchdown and a two-point conversion – the latter on a busted play, no less. Upset fever was in full bloom on the now well-populated Windward sideline. Could they possibly hold this 40-34 lead?
In a word, no.
“Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright, the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light…” (how come Ernest Lawrence Thayer gets all the good lines?)
Faith Baptist had not built a perfect season just to give it away. With less than two minutes left in the game and Windward in the 8-man football equivalent of a “prevent defense”, the Contenders crisply moved down the field with surgical precision. Their touchdown tied the score at 40, and the two-point conversion to win the game was…wait a second here…it was stopped by Windward! Not only that, but Faith had scored quickly, leaving some time on the clock.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
I’d like to tell you that we live in a world in which 7-4 teams that barely make the playoffs can beat 11-0 teams that are nationally ranked. Do we? Well, you tell me…
Apparently, we do live in that world. And the topper? The Windward Wildcats went on the next week to win the CIF Southern Section Championship over Excelsior. By a single point. In overtime.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take this football experience over the NFL every time.
Next Up: The Football Trilogy concludes with the SoCal Football Championships