The magical run for Sierra Canyon High football had to end because the 2018 season had to end.
The Trailblazers made it to the very end of a long season — the Division 1-A title contest against Liberty High Lions of Brentwood, CA, in the 2018 CIF State Football Championship Bowl Game that was played at Cerritos College on Saturday, Dec. 15.
It just wasn’t the ending the Trailblazers were hoping for, a 19-17 loss.
It was the first state championship for the Lions (13-1), whose only loss this season was to De La Salle High of Concord, CA. The Trailblazers were denied a third state championship bowl victory.
The Northern California entry prevailed because Liberty got 188 yards rushing and three touchdowns from senior running back Tyerell Sturges-Cofer, plus a passing attack from junior quarterback Jay Butterfield (11 for 23 with one interception for 117 yards), which came alive in the second half and was able to extend drives at crucial junctures.
Despite out-gaining Liberty in total yards (314-312) and having a 17-7 lead in the third quarter, Sierra Canyon (12-4) struggled all game to find an offensive balance. Senior running back E.J. Gable did rush for 169 yards, but never reached the end zone. Sophomore quarterback Chayden Peery (8 of 16) only had 75 yards passing and was sacked four times by the active Lions defense.
“[The Trailblazers’ offensive line] has been dominant up front all season long, but on certain plays we didn’t make plays. Unfortunately we had some issues with [pass] protection. We struggled with them all night,” Sierra Canyon Coach Jon Ellinghouse said afterward.
“It was a tight game. And we played really good defense tonight. But we kept shooting ourselves in the foot on big downs.”
The defeat ended a seven-game winning streak for Sierra Canyon and, no doubt will cause some handwringing and soul searching before spring practice begins in 2019. Yet there is plenty of silver linings in these momentary dark clouds.
This was — is — a very young team, with seven sophomores and a freshman among the starters. After an 0-2 start, the Trailblazers evolved into a highly competitive group that would win its league, the Southern Section Division III championship, and upset Upland High in the Southern California Regional game.
In other words, Sierra Canyon was performing at a level this year it was expected to perform at next year.
All of the defeats were close, the biggest deficit being a seven-point loss to Calabasas back on Oct. 5. The Trailblazers were young but quite talented. And now they will continue to mature physically and collectively.
Not only will they remember Saturday’s game, they should learn from it.
The Trailblazers took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter by grinding out a 15-play drive that covered 87 yards. Peery’s 1-yard sneak scored the touchdown.
But the Lions only needed one play to tie the score, as Sturges-Cofer broke free for a 72-yard touchdown run.
Sierra recaptured the lead, 10-7, on a 24-yard field goal by Josh Bryan with 1:36 left in the first half. And the Trailblazers added to the lead early in the third quarter on a 22-yard touchdown scamper by Brendon Gamble.
But with just over three minutes to play in the quarter, Sierra Canyon fumbled on their own 31. Liberty recovered and two plays later Sturges-Cofer broke three tackles in route to a 31-yard touchdown, his second of the game.
The Lions missed the extra point, however, and trailed 17-13. But the fumble recovery and ensuing touchdown gave Liberty a badly needed spark.
“We had a big turnover there. That’s one I’d like to have back,” Ellinghouse said. “It pumped life into them.”
Sierra Canyon missed a 35-yard field goal attempt 22 seconds into the fourth quarter. And Liberty, now in its offensive rhythm, drove 80 yards in eight plays. Sturges-Cofer’s third touchdown, this time from 11 yards, gave the Lions their first lead of the game. They missed the extra point again, so the lead was slim, 19-17.
But it turned out to be enough. Sierra Canyon had one more drive, but was stopped at the Lions 37-yard line. Even though there were still a little over four minutes left, the Trailblazers never got the ball back.
“It’s a team game, but [defensively] we just didn’t get them off the field at the right situations,” Ellinghouse said.
“But this is a young team. We will fight back.”