Friday Night Lights, SoCal Style

Junipero Serra takes field in CIF Southern Section Championship game against Arroyo GrandeThere are some games that defy description. Some that stand the test of time and take up permanent residence in the brain recesses of those who were there to witness them.

L.A. Times sportswriter Eric Sondheimer called the Northern Division Championship one of the best he’d ever seen in his many, many years of covering CIF Southern Section high school football. Hollywood is about 35 miles away from the town of Westlake Village, but they may as well have occupied the same ZIP Code during the game between arch-rivals Oaks Christian and Westlake.

It was one for the ages.

I wish I could have seen it.

But eight months into the IGTS Tour, my luck ran out. I was left with my nose pressed against the ticket window, so to speak. The game was sold out, and no amount of begging, pleading or influence peddling worked. Trust me, I tried. I made promises that would make a U.S. Congressman blanch. I was positively Cecil Newton-esque in my shamelessness.

Who would’ve thought – after successfully worming my way into 75 consecutive events, that the one that ended my streak would be a high school football game?

Thankfully, I had a Plan B. See, the California Interscholastic Federation conducts championships in several different divisions, specifically to address situations like mine. OK, maybe not specifically to help out deranged Sports Fans, but their system did work in my favor.

With a little luck, and traffic on my side, I figured I could make it to Gardena in time for the Western Division Championship kickoff. And miraculously, I did. I promise never to complain about L.A. traffic again. Wow, see what just one reference to politicians does for my tendency to play fast and loose with the truth?

Usually when sportswriters or other “experts” offer up pre-game analyses and predicted scores, they tend to keep the margin within reason. I’d like to think it’s motivated by a desire to be charitable (then again I still listen for the hooves of eight tiny reindeer every Christmas Eve). So it was particularly telling when previews of the game between the Junipero Serra Cavaliers and the Arroyo Grande Eagles had Serra running off with the title by almost three touchdowns.

Serra hasn’t lost a game since Bush was in the White House – and are just a handful of losses removed from being able to make the same claim about the first Bush in the White House. An L.A. dynasty, the Cavaliers are the defending Division II California State Champions. And California is a big state.

Conner Preston Calls Signals For Serra

On the other hand, Arroyo Grande had snuck into the playoffs as a wild card, having finished third in its small central coast league. A month-long Cinderella run had put them on a bus for the 200 mile trip to L.A.’s south side, where they stared across the field at a team that outweighed them by an average of more than 30 pounds a player.

Let’s say I wasn’t expecting a barn-burner.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Arroyo Grande came out and waged a field position battle in which they actually earned the upper hand in the early stages of the game. The Eagles boomed the opening kickoff deep into the end zone for a touchback, and the two teams proceeded to trade three and out’s – with Arroyo Grande picking up ten yards in each exchange of punts.

Inevitably, the Eagles penetrated into Cavalier territory in this way, and were in the process of attempting a short fourth down conversion inside the Serra 30-yard line when they were flagged for a false start. The ball was moved back five yards, which changed the Arroyo Grande coach’s plans. He sent out the kicker. Not the punter – the kicker. As in Garrett Owens, a high school junior that was about to attempt a 51-yard field goal on a chilly damp night.

Garrett Owen, the multi-talented junior from Arroyo Grande High

Meet Garrett Owen (and his leg)

“OK, this is optimistic”, I chuckled. I stopped chuckling when the kick was good, with several yards to spare. The underdogs had bitten first, 3-0.

In retrospect, the Eagles should probably have called time out and run over to the scoreboard to pose for photos in front of the display that showed the world that they were at one point actually winning this game.

Because shortly thereafter, they weren’t.

Serra is renowned for its nearly unstoppable passing game, and its assembly line of talented receivers. Last year’s undefeated team featured Robert Woods, who went on to start as a true freshman for USC this year. Stepping right into the void that he left though, was George Farmer, who may have gone Woods one better with a senior year that made him one of the best college prospects in the country – and landed him at USC as well.

And the talent pool isn’t limited to Farmer. Marqise Lee, who had been biding his time playing safety in previous seasons, finally moved into the offensive lineup as a result of Wood’s graduation, and took full advantage of the opportunity. His CIF Championship in track probably helped with that.

So I was a little taken aback when the bulk of Serra’s early play-calling involved handing the ball off to tailback Shaquille Richard. That is, until I saw two things:  (1) Arroyo Grande had loaded up the defensive backfield with everybody who could back peddle; and (2) Richard can apparently run the 100-yard dash in about 3 ½ seconds, give or take.

The Blur That Is Shaquille Richard

It was barely fair. After those first two possessions, Richard got it going, and in watching him in the open field you got the impression that he could score on any given play. Arroyo Grande noticed that as well and started to stack the defensive line to stop him. Serra didn’t need an engraved invitation to go aerial.

If I was surprised by one thing, it was how good Cavaliers quarterback Conner Preston was. But I shouldn’t have been so. Receivers don’t gain national attention throwing to themselves, and the kid was 28-0 as a starter, after all. Preston didn’t get much of the pre-game ink, but all he did in the span of little more than twelve minutes in the first half was drop three feather-soft touchdown passes right into the barely outstretched arms of Lee, Farmer, and then Lee again – all when they were in full stride.

After this display of offensive shock and awe, there wasn’t a sane person on the property that believed that Arroyo Grande had a prayer to win this game. It was 28-3 at the break, and it could have easily been much worse. A George Farmer touchdown on an electric punt return was called back on a penalty, and a Cavalier field goal attempt from chip shot range sailed wide in the waning seconds of the half.

By the time the two teams came back for the second half, the outcome had already been decided. It was really just a matter of how much the Cavaliers chose to win by.

But this is high school and not a college game, in which running up the score on an outmanned opponent is called earning “style points” – and practiced religiously in order to get more votes in the popularity contest that the BCS conducts to decide our national champion.

So Serra proceeded to…um, “dial it back” in the second half. The offensive machine that had displayed the ability to score at will was stripped down to a mix of running plays up the middle and short passes in the flat. The only downfield pass came on a 4th and 10 play when the Cavaliers were too close to punt and too far to try a field goal. When the play broke for a touchdown, Serra kept the celebration muted.

In other words, the whole thing showed class, dignity and sportsmanship. And the Arroyo Grande fans appreciated it. They appreciated their team too. When the final gun had sounded and midfield congratulations had been extended, the Eagles trudged over to their sideline – where they were met with a lengthy standing ovation. I’m not sure there was a dry eye in the visiting bleachers.

As for me, watching that unfold made me almost glad that I’d seen this game instead of the sold-out 29-28 epic that took place in Westlake Village.

OK, this stretching the truth thing has really gotten out of control now.

Next Up:  Hoop Dreams – Women’s College Basketball

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