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Simmons owns fourth quarter as Artesia earns rare opening season victory

By Loren Kopff

Huntington Park may have dominated the third quarter against Artesia in the season opener for both teams last Friday night. But junior wide receiver and safety Tytus Simmons owned the fourth quarter.
On three consecutive series, Simmons forced a fumble in the end zone following a Huntington Park interception, then caught a 32-yard pass on the next drive, followed by an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown as the Pioneers posted a 39-18 home victory. Artesia, which had lost 12 straight non league games, won a season opener for the first time since Sept. 5, 2008 and a home opener for the first time since Sept. 5, 2005.
“Obviously, anytime you win, it feels good,” said Artesia head coach Joe Veach. “It feels good because if seems like we’re off on the right foot. Every season that I’ve ever coached or played in, you really don’t know how good your team is until you actually play somebody else. Getting that first win is huge because now we know things that we can do and things that we need to work on. But we know that we can win games.”
Artesia was holding onto a slim 20-18 lead late in the third quarter when senior middle linebacker Daniel Hernandez recovered a fumble at the Huntington Park 32-yard line. Simmons promptly caught a 25-yard pass from senior quarterback Francisco Galan. But four plays into the fourth quarter, Galan was picked off by Luis Suarez in the end zone who tried to run with the pigskin instead of kneeling down and giving his team the ball at the 20-yard line. Simmons immediately wrestled the ball out of grasp of Suarez and instantly scored a touchdown for the hosts.
“I read the route all wrong,” Simmons admitted. “I slipped and I saw (Suarez) come down with the ball. I saw him struggle trying to get past the one-yard line and I just snatched it from his hands. I saw an opening and I took it.”
“We’ve been preaching all summer to make a play,” Veach said. “We even created drills that we call, ‘make a play’. We put them in situations where you’re double-teamed and you have to make a tackle and you have no help, but you have to make a play.”
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Suarez tipped a ball thrown by Galan and it went into the hands of Simmons who jaunted down the right sideline for a 32-yard gain. Five plays later, junior running back Manny Rivera iced the game when he scored on a one-yard run after he recovered a Galan fumble near the goal line.
The Spartans responded with four straight small runs but on third and four from their own 27-yard line, Michael Ramirez was picked off by Simmons who went 82 yards the other way for the final score of the game with 3:53 remaining.
“It’s my junior year, so the first thing on my mind is I have to earn a scholarship,” Simmons said. “To earn a scholarship, I have to make plays. The one thing that’s on my mind is my motivation.”
Huntington Park opened the game with a 14-play drive that chewed up nearly half of the first quarter and ended with Dale Vannoy scoring from three yards out. But after a 72-yard kickoff return from sophomore Christian Rodriguez, it took the Pioneers only two plays to tie the game, a one-yard run from Rivera.
When the Pioneers got the ball again, Galan had runs of 16, 5 and 22 yards and completed a 10-yard pass to junior wide receiver to Anthony Roldan which set up a Galan one-yard touchdown pass to Rodriguez.
Galan, who was six of eight passing for 56 yards in the first half, spent most of the first half handing the ball off to either Rivera or Rodriguez. When those two weren’t touching the ball, Galan was picking up 48 yards on four carries in the first 24 minutes including a five-yard run with 1:40 left in the first half to increase the score to 20-6.
“They were leaving the runs open,” Veach said. “They lined up in some fronts that we felt we could run the ball all on them. [Galan] did a great job of just directing the offense. Once they kind of scooted everybody into the box, he started taking some shots down the field.”
“It feels very good because we build up confidence for the team,” Galan said. “It’s a great feeling to win.”
Artesia scored on all three of its first half possessions, gaining 154 yards and controlling the clock for 10:03. But it was a different story in the third quarter. Artesia fumbled on its first two plays of the second half, losing the second one and the Spartans turned the miscue into a 27-yard touchdown pass from Ramirez to Vannoy. After the Pioneers punted for the first time, Huntington Park needed four plays to close the cap to 20-18 on a 17-yard run from Vannoy.
“You never feel comfortable,” Veach said. “Like I told the kids at halftime in the locker room, the same way we scored 20 and they scored six, in the second half they could come out and score 28 and we could score none. That was the message we were trying to get across to them.”
“In the second half, we weren’t in the game and we slacked off,” Galan said. “We were supposed to keep our head in the game and we just made mistakes.”
Galan finished the game with 10 completions in 16 attempts for 161 yards and added 78 yards on 10 carries. Rivera had 40 yards on 11 touches while Rodriguez chimed in with 17 yards on seven carries. Rodriguez also had three receptions for 25 yards.
The Pioneers, who lost to the Spartans 28-7 on the road in last season’s opener, had been outscored 123-7 in their last three season openers and their last home opener was against tonight’s road opponent, Whittier, in a 28-20 triumph.
“Winning is contagious and we kind of believe now that we can win games,” Veach said. “I like the way that it happened; that we had to fight back to win it. We learned we can win and the confidence is now there. For two or three years basically, we didn’t think we could win games.”

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