“Going To The State Game.”
Back in July that was merely a goal, a dream, a mantra to help players weather long summer practices so coaches could discern and identify who would play football at Sierra Canyon High in 2018 from a roster bursting with youth and inexperience.
It is now December. The Trailblazers are still young with a little more experience. But “Going To The State Game” has gone from lip service to reality.
By virtue of a 7-3 road victory over Upland High School in the Southern California Regional final on Dec. 1, the Trailblazers have secured a berth in the state CIF Division 1-A bowl game on Dec. 15 at Cerritos College.
They will play the winner of the Northern California Regional contest between Valley Christian High of San Jose and Liberty High of Brentwood, CA, an east Contra Costa county suburb near San Francisco. Those teams play on Saturday, Dec. 8. Their regional championship game had been postponed a week because of the air quality due to the recent Northern California fires.
Sierra Canyon (12-3) won’t mind waiting. And the Trailblazers won’t worry about accumulating rust or a loss of momentum. Their latest discovery was figuring out how to win on a night when everything isn’t going your way. When one of your best players is hobbled and lessened by injury. When an opponent you don’t know — Upland, this year’s Southern Section Division II champion, is located next to Ontario in San Bernardino county — plays a bruising, wear-you-down style football. And for the majority of the contest, the two teams were collectively locked up in a one-possession game, meaning one play — at any time — could be the difference between winning and losing.
This may or may not have been the last test the Trailblazers — who the previous week won the Southern Section Division III title in a close game against Cajon High of San Bernardino — have to take to reach their 2018 destiny. But it was a test they had to pass.
The Highlanders (12-3) didn’t help themselves Saturday by getting rained on by nine penalty flags for 64 yards — including a whopping six false start penalties. They were also without their top runner, Cameron Davis, and best receiver, Taj Davis, who were both sidelined with injuries.
The bulk of the offensive responsibilities fell to Highlanders running backs Julian Dedman and Tyevin Ford. Dedman had one big run for 37 yards and the 230-pound Ford was a load to contain on short-yardage plays. But neither player totaled 100 or more yards on the ground. In fact, the Sierra Canyon defense kept the Highlanders offense to 190 total yards, well under the 327 yards they averaged in total yards per game this season.
“This is a program (Upland) that plays great football and has a storied history,” Trailblazers Coach Jon Ellinghouse said afterward. “The story of this game was our defense. They shut them down and played a great game. Offensively we just did enough to win. That’s what it’s all about this time of year.”
Sierra Canyon also had less firepower at its disposal. Speedy senior running back E.J. Gable had his left ankle “tweaked” by a tackle in the first quarter and was limited to eight total carries and 64 yards rushing. (He also had a 35-yard pass reception). But J.D. Sumlin, a sophomore, did more than just take up space on the field. He carried 13 times for 96 yards on the ground, and caught two passes for 22 yards.
“[Gable] was having a bit of an injury issue. So we went to Sumlin,” Ellinghouse said. “Obviously I loved the way he ran. But that’s kinda who we are. I know E.J. gets a lot of credit, but we have four backs” — Gable, Sumlin, Hunter Williams and Brendon Gamble — “that have all been quality backs, and we just kinda ride our hot hand. That worked well for us tonight.”
“The coaches have been preparing me to step up,” Sumlin said. “I couldn’t have done it without the offensive line. And I had to step up because [Gable] was out.”
Quarterback Chayden Peery threw for 127 yards and a touchdown for Sierra Canyon, although he was intercepted twice.
All the scoring took place in the second quarter.
The Highlanders’ Cameron Walker kicked a 36-yard field goal 50 seconds into the quarter to give Upland a 3-0 lead. On their ensuing drive, the Trailblazers moved 73 yards in seven plays for a touchdown, which came on a nifty shovel pass from Peery to Gamble that covered 11 yards. Gamble went through the middle of the Upland defense, and burst into the end zone virtually untouched.
Upland had a couple of opportunities to score a touchdown. In the first quarter, Highlanders defensive lineman Joshua Garcia intercepted Peery’s short pass near midfield and ran it back to the Sierra Canyon 10-yard line. But on Upland’s first offensive play, Dedman fumbled the ball back to the Trailblazers.
Upland’s best drive came midway in the third quarter. Starting from their own 12-yard line at the 7:12 mark, the Highlanders methodically gobbled up 68 yards and took six minutes off the clock. They were now at the Sierra Canyon 30, and the Trailblazers were looking a bit fatigued.
But on a third down play, Highlanders quarterback Evan Rowe launched a pass toward a streaking receiver who broke toward the middle of the field. The pass was slightly under thrown, and Trailblazers defensive back Chayce Edwards-Morgan was in perfect position for the interception.
That was Upland’s last real offensive surge.
“During practice this week we had been working on their coming out in their double-tight end set, where the tight ends run either a ‘corner’ or ‘post’ [pattern],” Edwards-Morgan said. “Ninety percent of the time they threw to the ‘corner.’ I was waiting on it, playing my side of the field. Their quarterback, I don’t think he saw me; I was lost in the traffic. And he threw it right to me.”
Edwards-Morgan, one of the few seniors on the Trailblazers roster, then commented on how well his team is groomed to handle whatever direction the game goes in.
“Everybody has their own moments in specific games,” he said. “Most of the game I was real quiet, in the first, second and third quarters. I didn’t get too much action my way. I stayed patient, waited for my moment, and then seized it.”