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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

When Artesia High visited Gahr High last Friday night in the second of the three annual games to decide supremacy in the ABC Unified School District, the coveted Silver Milk Barrel was being held under lock and key by Gahr assistant principal Janet Simko until late in the fourth quarter. By the way the game was going, there was no need to wait that long to bring it out to the Gahr sideline.

For the second straight week, the Gladiators dominated a school district rival with a punishing rushing attack and a stifling defense. After rushing for 503 yards against Cerritos in a 63-8 win on Sept. 9, Gahr amassed 535 yards on the ground in a 56-7 victory last Friday night at Dr. Hanford Rants Stadium. This will mark the third straight season that the Silver Milk Barrel will remain on the Artesia Blvd. campus.

Senior running back Latrell Stearns rushed for 252 yards on 22 carries and scored four times while junior Chris Shakir-Ricks, who was replacing senior quarterback Robert Frutos (injured knee) under center picked up another 130 yards on eight carries. And when the time on the clock had reached triple zeros, Gahr head coach Greg Marshall was doused with water from Frutos and senior Erik Spurlin Renfroe.

“Because we have so many different weapons, they match us at the line,” Marshall said. “So they can’t just hone in on one side or one person. Our [offensive] line does a great job blocking different combinations. I don’t think the defense really knows where we’re going with it.”

Gahr scored on all eight possessions it had in the game, beginning with a Stearns three-yard run almost four minutes into the game. In fact, the first 31 plays Gahr ran were on the ground. Following Stearns’ first touchdown, Gahr went into its bag of tricks from the Cerritos game and successfully recovered an onside kick. Four plays later, sophomore running back Micah Bernard (eight carries, 86 yards) scored on an 11-yard run and with 6:24 left in the first quarter, the rout was beginning to show form at 14-0. In fact, short kickoffs were the norm for Gahr all night long, thus giving the Pioneers somewhat of a short field for their first three possessions.

“We told them all week, when they score, they’re going to kick an onside kick,” said Artesia head coach Joe Veach. “That is what they do. I’ve watched them in league and they don’t do it in league, but they do it to us because they think they can get it on us. They do it to Cerritos because they think they can get it on Cerritos. And that’s the difference.”

“They released a little early and they leave a guy [open] and we’ll onside it if you don’t honor it,” Marshall said of the onside kick. “So they didn’t honor it and we went for it. It’s a plus when we have a defense…you really take those chances with a short field if you don’t get [the ball] back.”

Artesia’s longest non-scoring drive came in the first quarter when a series of runs from sophomore quarterback Heder Gladden, plus one from senior running back Jordan Benoit had the visitors from the Suburban League at the Gahr 29-yard line. But an incomplete pass ended that threat.

Gahr took advantage and on the first play of the second quarter, Bernard made it 21-0 with a 20-yard score. Stearns would add a four-yard touchdown run five minutes into the second quarter and Shakir-Ricks tossed a 35-yard score to senior wide receiver Alonzo Davis with 72 seconds left in the half to make it 35-0. In fact, Gahr faced a third down situation twice in the first half and two more times on the last scoring drive of the game and was successful every time.

After Artesia went three and out to begin the second half, the Gladiators moved the ball 71 yards on six plays that was capped by a 16-yard run from Stearns. The Pioneers then bounced back and avoided the shutout when they took 8:12 off the clock, thanks to the running of Benoit and Gladden. With one second left in the third, Benoit went in from a yard out.

But when the fourth quarter began under the running clock format, Stearns rushed for a 54-yard gain, then a one-yard touchdown. Six plays later, senior cornerback Dior Denson picked off Gladden at the Artesia 45-yard line. That would eventually lead to a 34-yard touchdown run from junior Justan Lucas, the ninth Gladiator to touch the ball on offense.

“All of those guys have been playing since [they were] sophomores,” Marshall said. “We have them in the right defense. It was good to get [senior linebacker Theodore Ude] back, and we had [senior safety] Isaiah [Mays] back at the right time because we were missing those guys last week.”

“From the opening kickoff, we didn’t come out and play,” Veach said. “I thought we were pretty good up front on our defensive line. We’ve been, at least, the last three weeks and I think they won up front, at least when they had the ball.”

Davis caught three passes for 49 yards and on defense, junior linebacker Marquise Alexander led the Gladiators with four tackles while juniors Ikenna Ahumibe and Renso Sandoval each added three tackles. Junior lineman Calvin Jones also had three tackles plus a pair of sacks. At 4-0, Gahr is off to its best start since 2011 when the Gladiators won all five of their non league games before falling to Paramount High in the San Gabriel Valley League opener. Gahr went on to finish 7-3 but missed the playoffs. The Gladiators will host Fullerton High tonight.

“We’re off to a good start and I was telling them Artesia is a great ‘ole team and we handled them,” Marshall said. “So, I wasn’t expecting [56-7], to be honest with you. We know we’re going to probably be an at-large team in the division. So our wins have to be impressive because that’s a lower division team, but still an undefeated team. What we’re trying to do is make every game like a playoff game.

“That’s an Orange County team we always try to play to see who we are, because they’re going to look like the league teams,” Marshall added about tonight’s opponent. “They’re going to come out and they’re going to be fast and physical. Hopefully we’re going to be healthy and we’ll go out there and see what we can get done.”

As for the Pioneers, Gladden had 73 yards on 19 carries while Benoit was limited to 42 yards on eight touches. Junior defensive back Gustavo Hernandez led the Pioneers on defense with six tackles while senior linebacker Frank Garcia and sophomore safety Travys Davis each added five tackles. The Pioneers, who were off to their best start in over 19 seasons, will visit Bellflower High tonight in the league opener.

“We’re good offensively, at least we have been,” Veach said. “We’ve moved the ball well in every game, even in the game where we scored seven points. I knew we could move the ball on these guys. But, we don’t throw the ball extremely well. And when that’s the case, we can’t get into first and 15, second and 15. We can’t make those mistakes because we’re not an offense that’s built for a third and long. We have to get third and manageable.”