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WEEK FOUR FOOTBALL: Late interception thwarts comeback bid for Valley Christian against rival

By Loren Kopff

There have been some classic football games between Valley Christian High and Ontario Christian High since this rivalry began in 1973. Just four years ago, V.C. escaped with a 42-38 home victory and in 2008, Ontario Christian earned a 21-14 overtime game out in the Inland Empire.

Those were just a couple of better games in this rivalry and another one was played out last Friday night during V.C.’s annual Harvest Festival night. In a rare defensive tilt by both teams, the game wasn’t decided until Ontario Christian’s Anthony Sagasta intercepted a pass from senior quarterback Jesse Smith on a rebound at the two-yard line with 2.6 seconds left in the game, allowing the Knights to survive for a 14-12 victory. It was the second straight win by the Knights at Crusader Field and the third win in the past five meetings with V.C.

“I thought we would score some points,” said V.C. head coach Woodie Grayson. “I thought it would be a higher scoring game. But hat’s off to both defenses and defensive coaches. Both the defenses were ready to play. It took us out of rhythm early and we had some drops and some uncharacteristic things that hurt us. We just never quite recovered from that.”

Ontario Christian, which had entered the contest as the ninth ranked team in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Northwest Division top 10 poll, was clinging to a 7-0 lead for the first 35:42. But following a punt, the Crusaders put together their first scoring drive, beginning at the Knight’s 35-yard line. Five straight passing plays and an unsportsmanlike infraction put the ball at the 18-yard line where Smith found senior wide receiver Trent Berkenkamp for a touchdown with 5:15 left in the game. However, the extra point attempt was pushed to the right.

On the third play of the ensuing drive, senior defensive back Jacob Gisbert picked off Ian Ulloa and returned the pigskin 25 yards for a score. The two-point pass attempt was unsuccessful but the Crusaders had a 12-7 lead with 4:06 left to play.

The Knights got the ball at their own 35-yard line and went down the field, picking up a pair of first downs on third and short. With first and 10 from the V.C. 18-yard line, Ulloa threw three straight incomplete passes. Bit on fourth down, he found Grayson Kilne, who had split a pair of defenders to catch the winning touchdown barely over the goal line with 50 seconds left.

“When games come down to a good crescendo like that, you kind of hope that it goes your way,” Grayson said. “But hat’s off to our guys. When they went down and made that play, their kid made a great play between two defenders and was able to get into the end zone by maybe a yard. But we rallied back and found a way to move the ball down the field and give us a chance. To finish with an interception is tough.”

The Crusaders, who were fifth in the division but dropped to eighth following the loss, were able to move the ball from its own 20-yard line on four straight passes before Smith was called for intentionally grounding. On his next attempt, he found senior Robert Downs for a big 30-yard gain. But two passes later, he would throw his third interception of the night.

All night long, V.C. (4-1) was unable to establish a running attack, picking up only 30 yards in the first half. Because of that, Smith had to throw a lot of passes and in the first half, wasn’t too successful, completing six of 19 for 96 yards. He was able to play a better second half (14 of 22 for 162 yards) and at one point, was true on 10 straight completions including the touchdown. Senior running back Quaid Kawana led V.C. with 43 yards on 13 carries while Downs caught eight passes for 99 yards.

“It makes it hard because the first three games and a little bit in the last game we were able to run the ball some, and we were balanced,” Grayson said. “Tonight, we couldn’t run the ball to amount to anything. We tried early but we couldn’t get it going. So it made it tough and it made us one dimensional and allowed them to only defend one area of the game.”

One of the biggest turning points in the game came late in the first half. After Travis Struiksma had given the Knights a 7-0 lead on a two-yard run with 2:58 left before halftime, the Crusaders drove down to the 13-yard line on the strength of a 39-yard reception by junior wide receiver R.J. Van Kampen. Following a three-yard gain from Kawana, Smith would miss three straight passes, thus ending a chance for the Crusaders to score with 17.7 seconds left in the half. Grayson said he wanted to go for a potential tie rather than kick a field goal at that point.

“I knew they were going to get the ball to start the second half, so my concern was if we could go down and get three and they go down and score, now we’re down 14-3 and we’re chasing,” Grayson said. “I wanted to try to even things up knowing they would have the ball first to begin the second half. But we took some shots and they got some pressure and we had an open player but they got pressure and knocked the ball down.”

Despite giving up a season-high 14 points, the V.C. defense has been rock solid through the first five games, allowing 27 points in five games and posting two shutouts. Van Kampen led the Crusaders with 12 tackles while sophomore linebacker Samuel Talavera added nine tackles. The Crusaders will conclude their non league portion of the schedule with a road game against St. Anthony High at Clark Field tonight. The Saints are the sixth-ranked team in the East Valley Division and enter the game with a 2-2 mark.

“They’ve played light’s out the entire year and against some quality offenses of some schools that are used to putting up some points,” Grayson said of the V.C. defense. “Unfortunately for us we didn’t back them up tonight. We’re struggling right now a little bit on offense. We’re going to have to go back and find a way to achieve balance and help our defense out.”