The ecstasy and agony of winning football championships can come down to planning and execution. But it can also be determined by decisions — as in who makes them, and when.
Sierra Canyon High (14-0) won the Southern Section Division IV title on Friday, Dec. 2, defeating Corona del Mar of (12-2) Newport Harbor in double overtime, 36-35, because Coach Jon Ellinghouse willingly had a seniors moment.
That’s right, seniors. Plural.
The Trailblazers had just scored a touchdown in the second overtime on a 20-yard pass from Johnny Hawkins to Michael Myrick, drawing Sierra Canyon to within 35-34. But Ellinghouse was sensing real fatigue on his team — “With us being a team with a lot of guys playing both ways, I felt like we were getting worn down,” he said afterward — and thought he and his players had to make a stand now.
So instead of setting up to kick the extra point and force a third overtime, the Trailblazers lined up in a regular offensive set. Corona del Mar lined up defensively. Then time out was called.
“My thought process was to get in an offensive formation and see how they were going to line up,” Ellinghouse said. “I had my two top plays in my head for what we wanted to do.”
But during the timeout he called his seniors over in a group, running back Bobby Cole among them. Cole would get the ball if a running play was called.
“Coach Ellinghouse pulled over the seniors on the sidelines and asked what we should do,” Cole said. “Collectively we came to the decision we would go big or go home. He even let us call the play.
“We went through a couple of plays and narrowed it down to trying to isolate the middle of the field.”
Hawkins, sophomore, had thrown for four touchdowns in the game. But he wasn’t going to lobby to pass.
“We believe we have the best running back in California,” Hawkins said. “All of our seniors agreed we should go for two. We had the faith and gave it our all.”
After the timeout, Sierra Canyon again lined up in it’s offensive set. Corona del Mar crowded the line of scrimmage on defense. But the Trailblazers offensive line provided enough space for Cole to squirt through for the victory.
“We were going to stick with the iso because we knew and trusted our offensive line to get it done,” Cole said. “And we had a lead blocking fullback. I had no doubt we were going to get into that end zone.”
The conversion capped a highly entertaining affair in which both teams played pretty even in cold and windy conditions by, in essence, going against their strengths.
Sierra Canyon has been a power running team most of the year, particularly after senior quarterback Niko Harris went down with a knee injury in the third game. And Cole had a fine game, finishing with 115 yards in 17 carries. But 59 of those yards came on his touchdown run in the first quarter that gave Sierra Canyon a 7-0 lead. Otherwise, the Sea Kings kept Cole averaging less than four yards a carry on his other 16 rushing attempts.
“We threw the ball a lot more than our game plan called for,” Ellinghouse said. “But we saw some things on their defense, and that’s the way we wanted to attack it (by passing) in the second half. And it ended up working for us.”
Hawkins would have a big night, completing 17 of 30 passing attempts for 282 yards in spite of losing fumbles on the team’s first two offensive series.
“I didn’t know what was going on, to be honest,” Hawkins said. “After those mistakes, I told myself to focus. And around the second quarter, as I got warmer, I made some plays and got into a rhythm.”
His first TD pass was a 10-yarder to J.J. Hernandez with 2:22 left in the first half. It pushed the Trailblazers’ lead to 14-0, and Sierra Canyon had to be feeling good about the way things were going.
But it was here that Corona del Mar, one of the best passing teams in Orange County but struggling to stretch the field on Sierra Canyon Secondary began to run the ball with great effect.
“I thought we could attack them (through the air),” CDM Coach Dan O’Shea said, “but [ cornerback Corey Jones] and the rest of the secondary played really well.”
Sierra Canyon had concentrated its defensive scheme on taking away the outside deep passing lanes to contain the Sea Kings wide receivers, especially standout senior Ta Lé (who did have a touchdown in the second quarter called back because of penalties). But scheme left much of the middle of the field open, and that gap would be exploited by quarterback Chase Garbers and running back J.T. Murphy.
Garbers scored CDM’s first touchdown on a one-yard run with 13 seconds left in the first half to reduce Sierra Canyon’s lead to 14-7. Murphy — who finished with 240 yards on 27 carries — tied the score on a five-yard run with 2:57 in the third quarter.
The Trailblazers seemingly regained the momentum toward the end of the quarter when Hawkins slipped a 33-yard scoring pass to Diaz between two defenders for a 21-14 lead. But Garbers — who passed for 196 yards and rushed for 78 yards — evened things again on a two-yard run with 10:40 left in regulation.
“They definitely did a good job finding our holes,” Ellinghouse said.
Corona del Mar had a chance to go ahead in the fourth quarter, driving from its own 3-yard line to the Sierra Canyon 8-yard line with 1:47 seconds to play. But a 25-yard field goal, affected by the winds, drifted to the left of the goal post.
“When we lined up for that field goal we thought it could be a game winner,” O’Shea said. “And we wish we still had those higher uprights. In or out, it was hard to tell.”
Sierra Canyon had the ball first in overtime, and Hawkins threw a 14-yard scoring strike to Sam Shadorf, putting the Trailblazers in front 28-21. Garbers returned the favor, throwing four yards to John Humphreys for his only touchdown pass on the night.
CDM started the second overtime, and Garbers and Murphy took turns battering the Trailblazers defense until Garbers scored from a yard out, giving the Sea Kings their first and only lead, 35-28.
That set the stage for Sierra Canyon’s final heroics.
“I thought we played dynamic offense in the second half to eventually get the lead,” O’Shea said. “But, boy, they fight back. A very good team that’s exceptionally well-coached.”
“It was a lot more of a defensive battle than I thought it gonna be for a lot of the game,” Ellinghouse said. “My hat’s off to Corona del Mar. What a great program. It’s a big win for our program, and a tough game for somebody to lose. I’m glad it wasn’t us.”
Sierra Canyon moves on to the CIF State Regional 2A game, hosting City Section Division II champion Los Angeles High at Granada Hills on Friday, Dec. 9. at 7:30 pm.