The City Section football Division II and Division III championship games revived the age-old rhetorical question often bandied about in contests that mean so much to both sides.
Is it worse to lose a close game that leaves you questioning the decisions made, or having to endure a day-long pummeling by a better team?
The vanquished in this instance — Cleveland High and Verdugo High — would probably offer the same response: a loss by any name or method is a loss.
The Cavaliers had a lead late in their Division II game against Huntington Park High, but could not stop the decisive drive in the final minutes that gave the Spartans a hard-earned 18-14 victory.
The Dons, on the other hand, were crushed in their Division III contest by Marshall High of Los Angeles, 61-26.
Both games were played on Saturday, Dec. 2, at El Camino College in Torrance.
Cleveland (8-6), the No. 4 seed, had earned its way into the Division II final by upsetting top seed Eagle Rock the week before. But Huntington Park (11-3), seeded second, was a formidable, physical challenge especially with inexhaustible Bey’ Jon Lee at running back; the senior had averaged 158 yards a game.
He and the Spartans broke through in their second possession with a 65-yard, 10-play drive that culminated with Lee’s four-yard touchdown run for an early 6-0 lead.
The Cavaliers would struggle offensively most of the first half. Quarterback Takashi Drayton lost a fumble on the team’s first possession, and had his first pass intercepted on the second possession. Drayton would not complete a pass to his own team in the first half.
Cleveland’s defense kept the score close, highlighted by a stout goal line stand in the second quarter. But disaster struck late in the quarter when Spartans quarterback Victor Molina completed a 28-yard touchdown to Andrew Rios with 15 seconds left until halftime to make the score 12-0.
It would not have been surprising if the Cavaliers had come out for the second half feeling deflated and go through the motions. Instead, Cleveland came out with a fury.
The Cavaliers — who had enjoyed some first half success running the ball with Jakobe Harvey (83 yards) and Issac Garcia (76 yards) — amped up that aspect of their offense in the third quarter by taking the kickoff and driving 65 yards in seven plays. Harvey scored from seven yards out. With the extra point, Cleveland now only trailed 12-7.
Harvey then put the Cavaliers ahead in the fourth quarter with a four-yard touchdown run.
“We’re a team and we can come together when we feel like it,” Harvey said. The first half we came out lazy, thinking it would be an easy game. The second half…we came out and dominated as much as we could.”
Cleveland had 8:10 left to protect its lead, and nearly pulled it off. But Huntington Park, on its final drive, traveled 92 yards in 13 plays, getting the decisive touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Molina to Julio Velasquez with two minutes to play.
After the kickoff the Cavaliers got to midfield, but Drayton’s 13th and final pass attempt was intercepted by James Rossum with 43 seconds left, and the Spartans ran out the clock.
Head Coach Matt Gentle became emotional while addressing his team, and the pain of the loss was still evident when he addressed the media.
“We knew our guys could come out and play ball (in the second half),” Gentle said. We had a slow start but bounced back. I have a team full of soldiers. Even being down we never felt pressed.”
Gentle did second-guess himself on Cleveland’s final offensive pass play, on third-and-15, which would have covered 20 yards.
“I tried to go for (all the yardage) too early,” he said.
In the Division III matchup between Verdugo Hills and Marshall, a close scoreboard would not be the issue.
Verdugo Hills (8-6), seeded fifth, scored the game’s first touchdown on a nine-yard run by Patrick Moore with 8:26 left in the first quarter. But then Marshall (11-3), the second seed, scored the next 33 points of the first half to take control.
Turnovers again undermined the Dons. Verdugo Hills was able to survive six turnovers — including five interceptions — in the semifinal victory against Monroe High the week before. But there were four more against the Barristers on Saturday, and three were particularly damaging — two interceptions and a fumble recovery were returned for touchdowns.
The Barristers also got a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Renee Rangel.
“That was my biggest fear — to come in today and have this type of performance,” Dons Coach Sean Jackson said. “I knew they were a very good ballclub, and if we didn’t come out to play, this was gonna be the result.”
Marshall running back Johnny Hernandez-Jones had a memorable day for the right reasons, catching four touchdown passes and rushing for 116 yards on nine carries.
Verdugo Hills quarterback Mason Van Kempen did throw for 205 yards and two touchdowns, including a 91-yarder to Teddy Ibarra, and rushed 14 times for 26 yards.