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By Loren Kopff
When Valley Christian High hosted Maranatha High in 2013, it was on the last night of the regular season with the Olympic League title on the line. V.C. was on the short end of a 31-28 contest with the game being decided on an interception with 29.1 seconds remaining.
Last Friday night, the two teams met at Crusader Field with the league crown at stake again. But there was no need for any last second dramatics as sophomore running back Gianni Hurd ran through the Minutemen defense for 240 yards on 34 carries and scored three times as the Crusaders crushed the two-time defending league champions 37-6. V.C., which put the game away in the third quarter with three touchdowns, ends the regular season at 8-2 overall, 4-0 in league. It’s the first outright league championship for V.C. since 2009 when it went 8-4 and advanced to the quarterfinals. The Crusaders shared the league crown with Whittier Christian in 2011.
“I’m just happy for these kids,” said V.C. head coach Woodie Grayson. “It’s been a while since we’ve won a league championship. We’ve gone through some adversity; it seems like, every week. It’s a new player down and a new player up having to learn a new position and new assignment. Guys just keep stepping up. They’re a resilient group and they’re very coachable. It’s just fun for me to watch them accomplish something like winning a league title.”
For Hurd, a transfer from Lakewood High who had to sit out the first 30 days of the season, he admitted he was going to stay at Lakewood and was even thinking about taking a year off to rest his body and develop more. He added that he came to V.C. to build the team better.
“It’s special because I wasn’t going to come here my freshman year,” Hurd said of winning a league title. “But I thank God I got another chance to come here and attend Valley Christian. I love it here. It feels great, just being a sophomore, leading my team and just leading them to a better place.”
V.C. was nursing a 3-0 lead compliments of a 26-yard field goal from senior Roger Ramos when Hurd scored on a five-yard run 30 seconds into the second quarter. After Maranatha blocked the extra point, both teams wouldn’t score again until the opening drive of the second half.
On the sixth play of that drive, Hurd found the end zone again, this time on a 30-yard run as the Crusaders were feeling better with a 17-0 lead. But Grayson wasn’t feeling as comfortable until junior wide receiver Michael Polk caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from junior R.J. Van Kampen on a reverse. It was at that time that Grayson knew it was ‘light’s out’.
Maranatha, which had entered the game allowing just 57 points in eight games, got on the board on a 65-yard run from Dexter Myers on the very next play from scrimmage. But the Crusaders went back to work and Hurd scored from five yards out again with 33.6 seconds left in the third quarter. Hurd would carry the ball three more times after that and has picked up 681 yards on 74 carries in just four games with 10 touchdowns. He now leads the team in rushing and all purpose yardage.
“In the first half, I just had to get my rhythm back and just look for my holes and my blocks,” Hurd said. “But it started getting easier after running hard after every play.”
“I just think he enjoys playing the game,” Grayson said. “He realizes the role that he plays with this team and the fact that if he runs the ball and do what he does, it makes us better offensively.”
The final touchdown of the game came early in the fourth quarter when senior quarterback Jesse Smith connected with senior wide receiver Robert Downs for 29 yards. Downs, the team’s leading receiver, caught three passes for 37 yards. As a team, the Crusaders picked up 353 yards on the ground on 54 carries. Grayson said this was the first time all season they’ve run the ball to that degree with that many carries without the big plays
But the defense shined again as it has all season long, and Van Kampen had a lot to do with it. The defensive back intercepted Kwon Peterson with 2:59 left in the first half, his team-leading and area best ninth pick of the season. He also had nine tackles, which now pushes his season total to a team-high.86 tackles.
“He’s been the key to our defensive turnaround this year in the fact that he plays in the secondary so well,” Grayson said. “Any ball near him, he goes to get and it just makes everything else easier for the rest of the guys. But the biggest thing that he does is he comes up on run support. He’s a great tackler and he’s always in the right spot.”
The defense went through league play allowing 35 points with 21 coming in the first half. On the season, the Crusaders have held their opponents to less than 10 points seven times with two shutouts.
“At this point in the season, it’s not surprising,” Grayson said. “The most points we’ve given up all year is 20, and that was to an explosive St. Anthony team. What more can you expect? When we show up, we know we’re going to play good defense.”
“Our defense did great,” Hurd said. “It’s one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen. Size, we’re little. But we have heart.”
V.C. ended a three-game losing skid to the Maranatha since the Minutemen joined the league in 2010, The series is now tied 3-3 with both teams winning twice on its own field. Since 2007, V.C. has finished in first or second place in the league eight times.
Now, the Crusaders will have a week off before opening the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs at home on Nov. 13 against a second or third place team, or even an at-large representative from the Ambassador, De Anza, Northern or South Catholic Leagues.
“We’ve been kind of upset about it, that the bye came so late and we’ve been battling injuries and adversity all year,” Grayson said of not playing tonight. “But the guys toughed it out and to get to 8-2 and to win league and now have the bye and two weeks off before we get started, knowing that we’ll have a home game, it actually works out better for us.”
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