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CIF-SS DIV. 12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Valley Christian loses back and forth battle with Lancaster in final minutes

Valley Christian High freshman wide receiver Jaden Hernandez hauls in a 24-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Joe DeYoung with 5:04 left in the first half during last Saturday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 12 championship game. V.C. fell 44-42, ending its season at 6-8. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer

 

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

LANCASTER-Unless you were with Valley Christian High or Lancaster High, not too many people knew which way last Saturday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 12 championship game would go. On one sideline, you had the top-seeded Eagles, whose program had 14 straight losing seasons before the 2022 campaign, winning 21 games during that stretch which included three winless seasons.

On the other sideline stood the unpredictable Defenders, the second-seeded team who weren’t given much of a playoff chance when they began the regular season at 2-6, finished in fifth place in the Ironwood League and entered the playoffs at 3-7.

Both teams put up one of the best battles in any lower division championship game on this chilly 55 degree night in the Antelope Valley that wasn’t decided until V.C. sophomore running back Jojo Apisala was stopped short on a would-be two-point conversion with 1:26 remaining in the game, giving Lancaster a 44-42 win.

“Resilience man,” said V.C. first-year head coach Nicholas Walker. “We were there and that’s the resilience that we got. All I can say is that we tried.”

“It feels kind of surreal right now,” said Lancaster head coach Brandon Rivers. “This means everything to us; this is big for us. Historically, there have been a lot of losing years and not a lot of high expectations. Guys were saying, ‘hey, I hope we can finish with four wins’ and things like that. There was a lot of talk early on about guys maybe wanting to transfer. So, for us, this is big just to prove we can be a great program here at Lancaster; that we don’t have to be the bottom-dwellers of the Golden League.”

The Eagles (9-5) were looking to run out the clock when it had the ball at their own seven-yard line with 7:36 left to play. They ran 10 plays, all on the ground, converting on fourth down twice in 5:34. But on the last play, Cedric SaMarion fumbled at the V.C. 33-yard line and senior linebacker Micah Maurer recovered, giving the visitors one last shot.

Aided by a personal foul infraction, the Defenders got what they needed-an eight-yard scoring pass from junior quarterback Joe DeYoung to junior wide receiver Isaiah Jordan on third and goal. But Apisala, who injured his right knee late in the first half and was held to 12 yards on two carries in the second half, couldn’t find his step on the two-point try.

The offensive barrage began early and didn’t let up throughout most of the first half. Four plays into the contest, Apisala scored on the second of consecutive 16-yard runs. But two minutes later, Lancaster took the lead when SaMarion tossed the first of his three touchdown passes, then connected with Chowlyn Hughes for the two-point conversion.

 

 

Valley Christian High sophomore running back Jojo Apisala received the ball from junior quarterback Joe DeYoung in last Saturday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 12 championship game at Lancaster High. Apisala rushed for 93 yards on 18 carries, most of that in the first half, as the Defenders fell to the Eagles 44-42. Apisala was stopped short on a two-point conversion with 1:26 remaining in the game preserving the win for Lancaster. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer

 

 

But V.C. came back and ran out the final 7:35 of the stanza to regain the lead when Apisala scored from nine yards out. Already in the first quarter, he was up to 75 yards on 12 carries. After both teams traded punts on their first drives of the second quarter, Lancaster tied the game on a one-yard run from Ashton Mitchell. But DeYoung answered that score with a 24-yard pass to freshman wide receiver Jaden Hernandez and a 20-14 lead with 5:04 left in the half. Three plays after that, Lancaster took the lead back at 22-20 when SaMarion launched a 53-yard score to Hughes, then Mitchell converted the extra two points.

But V.C. wasn’t done as it took the lead again with 91 seconds left before halftime when Apisala scored on a two-yard run. Through the first 24 minutes, the Defenders were dominating in nearly every category, outgaining the Eagles 210-178, controlling the clock 15:08-8:52 and running nine more plays. But with Apisala injuring his knee, the second half wouldn’t be the same.

“We had a good offensive scheme and schematically, we dialed up what was right on offense,” said Walker. “We just couldn’t stop anything on defense.”

“They had Jojo; a big back who does a great job,” said Rivers of his concerns about V.C. “The quarterback has an arm that pops out and their receivers are fast.”

Lancaster began the second half by going 61 yards on five plays and almost three minutes in, the Eagles were up 30-28 on a six-yard run from SaMarion. The Defenders, though, answered that touchdown with a DeYoung to Hernandez play for 11 yards three minutes later and coupled with an Apisala two-point conversion run, V.C. was in front again at 36-30.

However, the game-winner would be scored when SaMarion threw a six-yard strike to Zyler Lane and with 3:23 remaining in the stanza, it was 38-36 for the hosts. Mitchell would add the clincher three plays into the fourth quarter on a five-yard run and finished the game with 198 yards on 24 carries.

“Man, we couldn’t stop a nosebleed and that’s kind of how it went,” said Walker. “We tried to adjust; obviously we adjusted, but it just didn’t occur. He’s a phenomenal back. Obviously, he’s over 1,000 yards for the year and you try to gameplan for that, but it just wasn’t good enough.”

Over a minute after Lancaster’s last touchdown, the Defenders were forced to punt, but got a gift when freshman Sean Bouma recovered a fumble when the ball inadvertently hit a Lancaster player and wasn’t picked up. V.C. was sitting pretty at the 10-yard line, but DeYoung threw two straight incomplete passes from the seven-yard line and Lancaster took over.

DeYoung, who completed nine of 13 passes for 138 yards in the first half, then the first four to begin the second half, ended the contest 15 of 29 for 225 yards. In one stretch, he had eight straight incomplete passes. Senior wide receiver Casey Bouma caught seven passes for 85 yards while Maurer hauled in three for 88 yards and Hernandez another three for 40 yards.

With Apisala not at full strength in the second half, it made a thin rushing attack even thinner as senior running back Major Brown was one of several players who were sick throughout the week. He touched the ball twice and didn’t gain a yard. Outside of Apisala’s 93 yards, the Defenders gained 10 other yards on the ground by five players on eight carries.

In the rich and storied history of the V.C. football program, this will go down as one of the all-time best seasons, even though it didn’t produce a championship, considering the team had a first-year year coach with six seniors, a three-win campaign but only one league win, and a 4-2 finish while scoring 180 points during that time.

“This is a foundation, and if we don’t see that, then there’s a problem,” said Walker. “But there’s a foundation and it’s built. The future is bright, and the future is going to be bright and we’re going to be those guys game in and game out.”

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