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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
The distance from Gahr High to Valley Christian High is a mere seventh tenths of a mile, good enough to be Artesia Blvd. neighbors. But in the 2016 season opener between the two schools, the Gladiators proved to be less than gracious visitors as they scored 34 unanswered points en route to a 41-14 win last Friday night at Crusader Field.
For Gahr senior running back Latrell Stearns, he called his team’s performance a statement victory, considering the Crusaders are the defending Olympic League champions following a 9-3 season. Stearns added that Gahr is getting better and that this is the best team he’s been on.
Gahr head coach Greg Marshall echoed the same sentiments as Stearns, adding that, “when you have a bunch of seniors that have stayed the path, those seniors set the tone. It was important to them that they stayed with the program and believed in the program.”
Gahr took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards on nine plays with the biggest gain coming from Stearns, who rumbled 47 yards on the first play from scrimmage. Just over three and a half minutes later, senior quarterback Robert Frutos found sophomore wide receiver Micah Bernard for a six-yard score.
V.C. was staring at a three and out on its first possession. But senior kicker Clay D’Amico put together a 31-yard run on a fake punt. However, he would come up short on a 40-yard field goal attempt nearly midway through the stanza. The Crusaders would eventually tie the game with 3:02 remaining in the quarter when junior wide receiver Bailey Torres hauled in a 41-yard pass from junior quarterback Isaac Joseph.
After that, it was all Gahr, both on offense and on defense. Four plays after the Crusaders tied the game, Frutos hooked up with senior wide receiver Alonzo Davis for a 61-yard score. The Gladiators wouldn’t find the end zone again until there were 62 seconds remaining in the half when Stearns went in from three yards out.
“Up front, I thought their offensive and defensive lines outplayed ours,” said V.C. head coach Woodie Grayson. “That was the difference in the game. To be honest, our opening drive was the result of a fake punt. We really didn’t move the ball. We didn’t give our guys a chance tonight. We just really didn’t play well up front.”
V.C.’s offense was in limbo, gaining 19 yards on the ground in the second quarter. Last season’s running back sensation, junior Gianni Hurd, was held to 13 yards on six carries in the half. And in the third quarter, a pair of turnovers on consecutive plays led to two touchdowns for the Gladiators, who by now had opened up a 34-7 lead.
“You really can’t get a feel for how good they are and how good we were because every time we stopped them, we were right back out there,” Marshall said. “That’s a result of our defense.”
On the first play of V.C.’s second possession of the second half, Joseph was hit after a seven-yard gain and fumbled the pigskin where senior safety Isaiah Mays picked it up and scooted 25 yards for a touchdown. Then following a Bernard interception of junior quarterback Jaylon Tucker, who had replaced an injured Joseph, Gahr capped off an eight-play drive with a 26-yard scoring run from junior running back Chris Shakir-Ricks.
The Crusader’s offense continued to sputter as another fumble put the Gladiators at the V.C. 34-yard line. Three straight runs from Stearns, the last being a four-yard score, extended the lead to 41-7 with 4:09 left in the quarter.
Stearns would finish the game with 207 yards on 24 carries while Shakir-Ricks picked up another 85 yards on 15 carries. As a team, the Gladiators would run through V.C.’s defense to the tune of 311 yards.
“They told me to lead the team and that’s what I did,” Stearns said. “I saw that they couldn’t tackle me, so I just kept pushing. I kept pushing the rest of the game.”
“It’s what we expect of him,” Marshall said. “We have to run the football; we have the running back. He’s going to carry us.”
Just as impressive as the running game was, Frutos had a banner game as well, completing his first eight passes and finishing with 137 while connecting 12 times out of 16 tries.
“He managed the game, made some good reads, got the ball out and took what they gave him,” Marshall said. “He didn’t force anything. But that’s what he needs to do for us.”
The Crusaders didn’t have a drive longer than 2:35 and despite D’Amico missing two field goals, plus the three turnovers, the hosts added their second touchdown when Hurd scored from a yard out with 3:25 left in the game. Entering the fourth quarter, Hurd had 25 yards on nine carries. But he got loose for a 75-yard jaunt and three plays later, made it 41-14. V.C. was limited to 146 yards on the ground while Joseph completed two of nine passes for 40 yards.
“We knew who we had to stop and we got fortunate…they got us on a couple of passes,” Marshall said. “Obviously we’re keying in on him and so they had to do something else. We said, ‘look, as long as he doesn’t beat us, I’m okay’.”
“They did a good job up front, penetrating the offensive line,” Grayson said. “We never really gave Gio any running lanes. As good as he is, he still requires those guys up front to do their jobs. Unfortunately, he just never had a chance.”
This is Gahr’s first on the field win in a season opener since 2012 when the Gladiators defeated Northwood High 31-20. The next year, Gahr was blanked by Lakewood High 36-0 in the opener, which later forfeited the victory. The Gladiators will host Millikan High tonight at Hanford Rants Stadium.
“We changed some things and we changed the defensive front,” Marshall said. “I think we found what this team can do the last couple of years. I think we were focused on what we needed to do tonight and we didn’t panic. I think last year in the first game…that was part of the problem.”
“Our defense did great,” Stearns said. “They pushed through everything. Once we got the offense going, we’re unstoppable.”
Junior linebacker Darian Green led V.C. with 11 tackles while junior defensive back Garret Williams added 10 tackles. The last time the Crusaders gave up more than 40 points and lost was on Nov. 22, 2013, a 47-15 setback to Oak Park High. V.C. will be on the road to face Bellflower High tonight at Ron Yary Stadium.
“We get a chance to look at the film and we have to find a way to be better up front,” Grayson said. “The guys that we have are far too good to play the way we did tonight. We’re going to have to challenge those young men and they’re going to have to accept that challenge and they’re going to have to man up and get it done next week.”
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