There is a singular beauty in the phrase “enjoying the moment” in sports since a) there’s always another game, b) you never know when or exactly how those “moments” are coming, c) while the reactions may feel repeated they can truly never be duplicated.
So what should one make of the shining moment for Sierra Canyon High on Friday, Nov. 23, when the Trailblazers toppled the Cajon High Cowboys of San Bernardino, 34-30, at San Bernardino Valley College to win the Southern Section’s Division III football championship.
Does it feel like the birth of a mini-dynasty? There were only 11 listed seniors on the team’s 57-player roster, and Coach Jon Ellinghouse was willing to start as many as eight freshmen or sophomores on the team’s offensive and defensive sides. Which suggests the Trailblazers still have some growing to do. They can be even better than this 11-3 squad whose 2018 season hasn’t ended yet.
Or should it instead fall into the back-and-forth cycle of were-they-that-good as opposed to did-they-get-hot that also revolves around moments like this — an underdog who rises above a seemingly impossible obstacle.
Of course the real problem here is that it’s sportswriters and team supporters who try to dissect such moments rather than simply embrace them.
“You don’t reach your potential unless you are hot at the right time,” Coach Jon Ellinghouse said. “We were an 0-2 team that got angry about it. Week-in and week-out, I saw them get better. In a lot of ways this team has done a great job of getting better and not overthinking things.”
This fact is indisputable. The Trailblazers are a team that rebounded from an 0-2 start and has now won 11 of its last 12, including six straight, to claim the fourth section title in school history (along with two state titles) under Ellinghouse.
And none of those victories were more impressive than the one on Friday.
The Trailblazers faced a 12-1 team that last year won the section Division IV title whose high-powered offense was jet-propelled by tremendous senior Jayden Daniels — a four-year starter at quarterback who is the state’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Daniels is a gifted athlete possessing a howitzer arm that can throw the ball for distance and with touch, attached to a 6-5 frame that is both speedy and elusive.
“No doubt, the best quarterback I’ve seen in high school all-around,” Trailblazers defensive backs coach Terry Samuels said of Daniels. “You almost never get a direct hit on him.”
Nonetheless, Sierra Canyon took control early. And it was also obvious that the young Trailblazers were not playing over their heads but playing to their abilities.
Ellinghouse and staff studied long and hard the game film from the one team that had beaten Cajon — Heritage High of Romoland, CA, located between Perris and Moreno Valley. The Patriots were successful in running the ball against the Cowboys, which not only controlled the clock but kept the dangerous Daniels off the field. That approach could also work in favor of Sierra Canyon, and its very talented senior running back E.J. Gable.
Ellinghouse even installed a couple of running plays using the double-wing formation that is so rarely seen these pass-happy days, and never before used by Sierra Canyon in a game.
“The best thing about my job is I can throw a lot of things at some smart kids, and we can make it challenging for opposing defensive coordinators,” he said. “We tend to have some new wrinkles every game. That formation was one we had practiced awhile but never used. But for [Cajon], with their talented quarterback, we knew we wanted to slow that game down. The strength of our offense is we can throw a lot of formations at you, and hopefully we can find a defensive weakness to hang our hats on.”
Trailblazers offensive lineman Josh Carlin was practically drooling when he saw the game plan.
“We saw (on film) that Heritage ran the crap out of the ball, pounded it down their throats,” Carlin said. “So, we wanted to do that to our advantage, just keep pounding the rock.”
Quarterback Chayden Peery was also on board. “I was excited. It doesn’t matter how many yards I have, or how we get the win. If E.J.’s going to get that win, I’ll just keep giving him the ball. And E.J. can put the team on his back, our line can [block] great.”
Sierra Canyon also played steady and basically error free, building a 24-8 first half lead on a 2-yard scoring run from Peery, a 15-yard pass from Peery to J.J. Hernandez, a 35-yard field goal by Josh Bryan, and a 9-yard touchdown run from Gable. The Trailblazers defense was doing its part in containing the Cowboys offense with sure tackling and forcing an early fumble. It only faltered once, when Daniels broke through for a 23-yard touchdown run.
But the Trailblazers knew the game was far from settled.
“We knew they were going to come out [in the second half] and give us effort,” Ellinghouse said. “We watched them [on film] come back from deficits all year long. There was no comfort with a lead, there were just adjustments to make.”
That’s precisely what happened. Cajon stonewalled Sierra Canyon on its first drive of the third quarter. Then Daniels — who would pass for 228 yards and rush for 175 yards — needed just two plays to get the Cowboys back into the end zone. The second was his 35-yard touchdown run. It tightened the score to 24-16, and Cajon had genuine momentum for the first time. Daniels kept Cajon rolling with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gibson on the team’s next possession.
The third quarter was the only quarter that the Trailblazers looked flustered. Peery, who threw for a modest 73 yards on the night, was getting little time to pass, and was sacked twice. Cajon’s defense had closed the holes Gable had been running through. Sierra Canyon also had penalties that stymied drives. The only points came on a 31-yard field goal by Bryan in between the Cowboy touchdowns.
“To be honest, we kinda beat ourselves in the third quarter,” Peery noted afterward.
Cajon took its only lead in the fourth quarter, 30-27, when Daniels threw his second touchdown pass, a 20-yarder to 6-8 wide receiver Darren Jones with 8:54 to play. But the Cowboys followed that up with a questionable decision to try a short kick, which Sierra Canyon recovered. The Trailblazers were only 51 yards from the Cajon end zone.
They got there in four plays and 33 seconds. Gable — who ran for 232 yards on 26 carries — gave his team the lead back on an 11-yard scamper. But with 8:21 left on the game clock, Cajon could feel confident in creating another scoring opportunity.
Daniels drove his team to the Trailblazer’s 8-yard line. The Cowboys had four shots at getting into the end zone. But the Sierra Canyon defense reared up and stayed strong, especially on fourth down when Cajon tried a trick play with receiver Devon Murray throwing a pass back to Daniels. He was tackled at the 3-yard line.
“We had a ‘spy’ on [Daniels], a guy who followed him the whole time,” Samuels said. “We watched for his cutbacks. And it worked.”
There were still a little more than four minutes to play. But the Trailblazers offensive line and Gable made sure the Cowboys offense never got back on the field. Gable, in fact, broke free for a 45-yard run that put the ball at the Cowboys 1-yard line with less than a minute to play. Sierra Canyon didn’t try to score, just letting the clock run out instead.
As previously noted, the 2018 season is not over. The Trailblazers were placed in Division 1-A for the State CIF Football Championship Bowl Games playoffs. They will play Upland High — the section Division II champion — on Saturday, Dec. 1, in yet another road test. In its last three games Sierra Canyon has been sent to Moorpark, Moreno Valley, and San Bernardino.
“The real shame is these kids have done some incredible things, and our community has had zero chance [at a home game] to enjoy it,” Ellinghouse said. “But Upland deserves to be the home team. They have always been one of the better teams, with numerous [college] Division I players. It’s an honor to go play in a game like that. If we can pull it out, it would one of the bigger wins in our history.”
No matter what happens on Saturday, it won’t change or diminish what has already happened. And offensive linemen Chris Pruett, a senior like Carlin, could appreciate how special the moment was at San Bernardino Valley College.
“I thank God, who was on our side. I thank my family for their support, the team’s support,” Pruett said. “I came a long way, I didn’t touch the football field until I was a freshman. And now I’m winning a ring.”