In a matchup of two high-powered offenses, it appeared whichever team had the ball last would prevail in the CIF Division 2-AA state championship bowl game Friday afternoon between La Serna and Sacramento Grant.
Instead, it was the defenses that asserted themselves in the second half as La Serna captured its first state bowl championship in its first appearance with a 21-19 victory at Saddleback College.
Grant drove 92 yards in 10 running plays, ending with a six-yard dive by Devin Green, to creep to within two points with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left, but Kaimana Tufaga tackled Grant running back Wayshawn Parker short of the goal line on the two-point conversion attempt.
“I expected a close game and we won because we play as one,” Tufaga said. “The key was getting everybody to the ball. That was one of our best games for sure!”
After an unsuccessful onside kick, Owen Long picked up 12 yards for a clinching first down on the Lancers’ ensuing possession and they proceeded to run out the clock.
“We knew what we were walking into,” said Long, who led La Serna with 14 tackles at free safety. “This was about being tougher. We’re used to scoring more but 21 [points] was enough today.”
Grant (12-3), which was seeking its third state bowl win, scored first on a four-yard toss from Luke Alexander to Koby Shabazz less than two minutes into the game.
A 50-yard kickoff return by Jayden Northrup gave the Lancers the ball at the Grant 35 to start their first drive, which was capped by Tufaga’s 22-yard run on a reverse, but the extra- point try was wide.
Grant marched 70 yards in 18 plays, converting two fourth downs, and took 7:39 off the clock to extend its lead to 13-6 on Parker’s seven-yard run early in the second quarter, but the extra-point attempt was blocked.
Long recovered a fumble by Parker at the La Serna 46 and the Lancers (13-3) capitalized, scoring on a 13-yard scramble by quarterback CJ Ceron, who then rolled out and threw to Lazlo Haas for the two-point conversion that gave the Lancers a 14-13 lead with 1:57 left in the second quarter.
Alexander was knocked cold on a punishing hit by Ceron, who also plays safety, with the Pacers (12-3) threatening to score in the final seconds of the first half. Alexander did not return and was replaced by backup Shiren Crump, who was sacked once and completed two of six passes for 11 yards. Alexander was seven-of-14 passing for 62 yards and Parker ran for 145 yards in 27 carries.
After a scoreless third quarter, La Serna upped its lead to 21-13 on Long’s juggling grab in the back of the end zone after Ceron’s 19-yard pass was tipped by Grant safety Marquay King-Johnson with 11:03 left in the fourth quarter.
“I can’t even say it took any skill,” Long said. “God was on my side on that play.”
Before its final touchdown drive, Grant had managed to gain only 26 yards in the second half, but the Pacers stayed close by limiting a La Serna team that was averaging 244 yards rushing a game to 113. Ceron completed six of 12 passes for 74 yards and Long ran 11 times for 52 yards.
“All the smiles on these guys’ faces, all the practices, all the time and effort … this means a lot for this football team and for Whittier,” La Serna coach Andy George said before raising the trophy and handing it off to his players.
La Serna ended the season on a 10-game winning streak and was coming off a thrilling 49-32 triumph over Orange Vista in the regional bowl. The Lancers entered Friday’s contest averaging 43.5 points while Grant was averaging 47.3 points, yet it was La Serna’s defense that came up with the plays it needed in the end.