Sondheimer: How Simi Valley won the Southern Section Division 6 football title in wild fashion

There was drama, there was excitement, there was comedy. Jim Benkert, the first football coach in Simi Valley High’s 103-year history to win a CIF title, got home at 1 a.m. Sunday after his team’s 44-38 overtime victory over host Mira Costa in the Southern Section Division 6 final and needed an immediate shower.

“They hit me with Gatorade for the first time in my career,” he said. “I was uncomfortable for two hours on the bus. That stuff is sticky, smelly and disgusting.”

Simi Valley’s story is wild. The team has scored seven touchdowns off blocked kicks this season, six of them punts, including Saturday night. Carlos Ferreiro blocked a punt just before halftime and Seth Knight returned it for a touchdown to make the score Mira Costa 28, Simi Valley 17.

“We were dead,” Benkert said of his team falling behind 21-0. “We were hopelessly dead. We blocked the kick and life happened.”

The game went into overtime. Mira Costa was stopped on its first possession. Simi Valley players went onto the field with a chance to win the game. That’s when the stadium lights went dark.

“The kids are going, ‘Oh, they did it on purpose,’” Benkert said. “No. It’s cold, there’s a conference with the officials, no lights are on. It was a surreal environment. Just to be honest, I had to go to the bathroom. I told the referee, ‘Don’t start the game until I come back.’”

After a 20-minute delay, Simi Valley players were telling Benkert what play to run and how they intend to celebrate.

“Our kids came up, ‘Coach, when we win it, I’m going to carry you off the field.’ I’m going, ‘Can we focus?’ They were so sure we’d win.”

On the second play of overtime, Brice Hawkins ran 20 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

“Oh my gosh, it was so gratifying,” said Benkert, who has 302 career victories and previously won CIF titles at Westlake and Oaks Christian. “I’m so proud of these kids.”

Seven of the starters played junior varsity football as juniors. The team’s starting quarterback was prepared to switch positions until learning the expected starter had transferred. The defensive coordinator, Doug Semones, lives in Puerto Rico. The special teams coordinator, Darrell Talavera, lives in Maui. Another special teams coach, Kevin Sterling, lives in Utah. Somehow, someway, Benkert has made it work.

In season where there has been very few surprises at the upper levels of high school football in Southern California, Simi Valley (9-5) heads a group of teams celebrating improbable championships, including Mayfair (Division 7), Torrance (Division 10), St. Monica (Division 13), Bell Gardens (Division 14) and Los Angeles Jordan (City Section Division III).

All will get to play in state bowl games that were announced on Sunday. The marquee matchup is the CIF Open Division bowl game set for Dec. 9 at Saddleback College featuring Mater Dei against San Mateo Serra. City Section Open Division champion Birmingham opens play in a Division 3-AA regional on the road Friday in San Diego against Del Norte, coached by former Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Barnett.

Regional games will be played this week, with winners advancing to the finals to be played at Saddleback, El Camino College and Pasadena City College on Dec. 8-9.

Simi Valley will face Central Valley Christian (13-1) in Visalia on Saturday night. When Benkert coached at Westlake and Oaks Christian, his teams were routed in state bowl games, so he’s changing tactics this week. There will be no shoulder pads worn during practices. They will be walk-throughs as players try to heal bruises and banged-up bodies.

“Let’s enjoy what we accomplished and have fun” is Benkert’s message.

Along with, “Let’s block another kick.”

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