(Photo/ Steve Galluzzo) Out In Space — Taft receiver Daniel Ramirez looks for running room as Panorama defender Anthony Fuentes (21) closes in for the tackle.

For Birmingham Charter High, El Camino Real Charter High, and Taft Charter High, it wasn’t about how they started their 2021 prep football seasons, it’s about how they are finishing.

All three West Valley League teams won City Section upper division championships last weekend. Taft won a thriller against Panorama High for the Division III title while ECR and Birmingham were more definitive in their victories in the Division II and Open Division title games against Hamilton High of Los Angeles and San Pedro High, respectively.

Not every championship game was fruitful for Valley participants. Canoga Park High lost to Venice High in the City Division I contest. And Alemany was defeated by Orange Lutheran in the Southern Section’s Division 2 title match. 

Otherwise, it was another standout weekend for the locals, who have all now qualified for regional and state bowl games.

Panorama vs. Taft

The Pythons (8-6), seeded third, and Toreadors (7-7), the top seed, were the most evenly matched teams, and not surprisingly had the most competitive game on Friday, Nov. 26, at Birmingham High. And it was definitely an even game when it came to heart.

Panorama, playing in its first ever City title game, trailed 7-0 after the first half thanks to a 16-yard touchdown pass by Toreadors quarterback Wellington Bristow to Devon Conroy. But the Python’s triple-option running attack piled up chunks of yardage against the Taft defense in the second half. Melvin Linares scored on a four-yard run in the third quarter to tie the game at 7-7, then Linares gave Panorama a 14-7 lead on a five-yard run with just over five minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.

“I was a bit startled how well they adjusted [in the second half],” Taft Coach Jeff Kearin said. “But it was also a championship game and they took it to us. We had scrimmaged with them in August, and they and us had both come a long way.”

But things really got interesting in those final five minutes.

Taft came right back and scored on Bristow’s second touchdown toss, this time to Anthony Maloney. But the Toreadors missed the extra point. And Panorama appeared to ice the game on Linares’ third touchdown, this time from two yards out.

But the Pythons missed their extra point try, leaving the score, 20-13. Just as important, there was 1:31 left to play in regulation — enough time for the Toreadors to rally one last time.

Bristow quickly drove Taft back down the field and notched a third touchdown pass, covering 11 yards, to Amir Dutt with 58 seconds  left in regulation.

“We had run that play so much in the season, so they knew it was coming,” Bristow said. “But…I just didn’t want to lose the game.”

And without hesitation, the Toreadors lined up for a two-point conversion play.

“There was no doubt in my mind, but we are definitely a cooperative group here,” Kearin said. “[And] it was unanimous among the players and coaches. We were struggling to try and stop them. Our run game had been eliminated and our pass protection was breaking down. So to me it was, ‘let’s just do it.’”

Bristow took the snap from center and rolled out around the left side. A Python defender was waiting and nearly tackled him. But the quarterback broke free and just managed to get the ball across the goal line before he was knocked down.

It was a remarkable finish to a terrific game. And it provided an exclamation point to a season for Taft that started in the throes of a 24-game losing streak (that ended at 26 games).

“It’s crazy. I’ve never felt this way in my life,” Bristow said. “I wanted to win this for our guys; we had so many first-year guys who’d never played football in their life. They’re my best friends. And they worked so hard, and I worked so hard, for this. And it means so much for us all.”

ECR vs. Hamilton

When El Camino Real Charter High Coach Jason Sabolic talked about his team’s Division II title victory over Hamilton High of Los Angeles as “coming full circle,” he probably didn’t realize the unintentional irony of that thought.

These two schools played for the D-II championship in 2009. On that day, Hamilton blew past ECR — back when they were known as the Conquistadors — by a score of 67-42. And Hamilton, which had the dominant speed and size especially at wide receiver, looked like it could have scored 100 points that day.

Almost 12 years later, the script was flipped. El Camino Real (6-7), the top seed — which has changed its team name to Royals —  had enough size to mostly negate the third seed Yankees’ (9-4) offensive and defensive schemes, and it was their receivers who were running free and open against the Hamilton secondary in a 37-18 victory on Saturday, Nov. 27, at Pierce College.

M. Terry/SFVS
No “Blues” for Royals — El Camino Real celebrates its first City football title since 1997.

Sabolic’s postgame perspective was more attuned to how his players — like many teams the past couple of years — had to overcome major obstacles caused by the pandemic to be able to play the games.

“The kids in the spring weren’t ready to play football,” Sabolic said, his voice at times filling up with emotion. “They needed to learn how to win and how to be together. And they have come such a long way. They bonded, learned how to win as a team, and just got better. They figured it out.

“It’s a testament to all their hard work. After the [last] nine months through COVID, this is so special.”

Royals quarterback Ryan Feinberg had a prolific afternoon, throwing four touchdown passes; two to Kameron Dover for 40 and 60 yards; another to Rafael Cortez, covering 19 yards; and a three-yard toss to Luke Peffer in the final two minutes that sealed the victory.

Feinberg has now thrown 34 touchdown passes this season, setting a new school record, and has at least one more game to play.

“Everything was working today,” he said afterward. “[Hamilton was] always pressing our receivers, trying to test them. And our receivers are some of the best in the Valley, and in the City. And they showed it today.”

“Me and the receivers were working so well. And me, our other quarterback and the receiver corp are all best friends. We’re always hanging out, going to each other’s houses. It’s perfect.”

Sabolic, who kept the Royals upbeat despite getting no wins in their nonleague games before rounding into form in West Valley League action, did his best to encapsulate how hard it has been to have football at all during the pandemic.

“My hat’s off to everybody who had a chance to run a program through these times — through the masks, the protocols, and not having everybody on campus,” the coach said. “It hasn’t even been a full year that we’ve been together with these kids, which makes it even more special.

“They bought in. They finally believed and trusted us as a coaching staff, and they listened and got better. That was the beautiful part about the whole thing.”

Birmingham vs. San Pedro

When it comes to City football, no one’s close to Birmingham Charter High. The proof is in the numbers, if you want to judge by this 2021 season.

The Patriots lost all five of their nonleague games against Southern Section teams to start the season. Their last eight games have been against City teams. The Patriots are 8-0, posted five shutouts, and outscored their opponents by a cumulative total of 365-27.

M. Terry/SFVS
Patriots Stay Dominant — Birmingham goes back-to-back in City Open Division title games.

San Pedro High (10-2) can at least say it scored half of those points when the two teams met for the Open Division title on Saturday. The Pirates may have been the higher seeded team at No. 2; but the fifth seeded Patriots left no doubt who was No. 1 after their 24-14 victory at Pierce College.

The final score made the contest appear closer than it was. Birmingham led 21-0 before the Pirates finally scored a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. The Patriots tacked on a field goal midway through the fourth quarter before the Pirates got one late last score when Birmingham was more interested in running out the clock.

“Everyone counted us out early — ‘What are they doing, they’re 0-5’ — but guess what? We’re back-to-back City Champs in the Open Division, and going to the state playoffs again,” Birmingham Coach Jim Rose said.

And if the team started that badly and not made the playoffs, much less win the championship?

“[People] would have been calling me an idiot,” Rose said.

Admittedly the Patriots Way may not be for everyone in City football. Rose goes out of his way to schedule as hard as he can in the nonleague portion of the season, and has to hope his players aren’t too banged up or psychologically beaten down to get through the West Valley League and City playoffs.

But, as Rose notes with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “When you get rings you can get the kids to buy in a lot better. That does help.”

And the 2021 team was no exception.

“It was all worth it,” said quarterback David Jordan-Oliveros, when asked about Birmingham’s rigorous approach to football. “And I’m really proud of these guys, very proud of the linemen up front. it didn’t matter how big the other opponents were, we handled it the way we handled it.

“We have a little motto about ‘The Patriot Way,’ and I love using it. Basically the coaches get us mentally and physically ready. We go against opponents who are bigger and stronger early, who have [college] Division I offers, but we see where we stack up and what we need to work on as a team. It’s a great way.”

Jordan-Oliveros threw three touchdown passes on Saturday. Two of them were to outstanding tight end Arlis Boardingham, who has received multiple college Division I scholarship offers. The first one came in the second quarter, when Boardingham caught the ball at the Pirates’ 30-yard line, broke out of a tackle and outran the Pirates secondary for a 41-yard score. The second touchdown, which came early in the third quarter and covered 26 yards, was a thing of beauty; Boardingham outjumped a pair of defenders deep in the corner of the end zone for the score.

“For me, the one in the end zone was the better one,” Boardingham said. “It was a statement, letting everyone know I was here.”

The 6-5, 230-pound senior has at least one more game to play before announcing where he will go to college. But the memories of winning consecutive Open Division titles (Birmingham won in 2019; there was no championship game played in 2020 because of the pandemic) will last a long time.

“I knew we could do it,” Boardingham said. “I knew we had the right pieces, and we knew how to get it done. We had everything we needed. We just had to gel and have that chemistry. We had that tonight.”