_____________________________ ST. NORBERT CHURCH           RATES _______________________


CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION DIVISION 12 FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS : Artesia shakes off rusty start to win first playoff game in over two decades

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter

It took Artesia High 19 days short of the 10-year anniversary of its last playoff game to once again play an 11thgame in a season. And when the Pioneers kicked off to Ramona High, you could see that maybe the jitters would take some time to go away.

Less than eight minutes into the contest, Artesia was trailing the Rams 21-7 and had not run a single play of offense. But the hosts bounced back in typical fashion, scoring on five straight possessions and eight of nine as they outlasted Ramona 59-42 last Friday night in this CIF-Southern Section Division 12 first-round playoff game at Atkins Stadium. It was the school’s first playoff victory since 1994 when that squad knocked off Monrovia High 42-21 in a Division VIII first round game. Since then, the program had lost six straight playoff contests. In addition, the game marked the first time this season that everyone was healthy and eligible to play at beginning of the game.

The Rams parlayed an 11-play, 4:37 drive into a three-yard rushing touchdown from Brian Alvarenga and a 7-0 lead. But senior Travys Davis had a very quick response to that, going 95 yards to the house on the ensuing kickoff. After that, the third place representatives from the River Valley League scored twice in less than three minutes, recovering an onside kick following the second score.

“They just played good at the beginning and we didn’t play great at the beginning,” said Artesia head coach Don Olmstead. “That’s ultimately what happened. It’s hard to simulate the speed in practice. It’s the same thing every week. That’s why I try to stay positive in the first half because I know that we can’t simulate the speed that they play at.”

But once the Pioneers (8-3), winners of four straight games, settled down, they went with what has been working so well all season. On their third offensive play of the game, Davis scored from 49 yards out to make it 21-13. Then three and a half minutes into the second quarter, he scored on a sweep from four yards out. And finally, with 5:34 left in the first half, Davis put the inaugural 605 League champions in front with a 17-yard run.

“They had momentum in the first quarter and if we could just weather the storm and get through it, then I knew our kids would play,” Olmstead said. “It was just a matter of time before they actually took over the game.”

Alvarenga’s second touchdown, this one a four-yard run with 2:41 left in the half, put the Rams back on top at 29-26. But the Pioneers went 60 yards on seven plays that took nearly the remainder of the half to regain the lead for good. A 38-yard pass from senior quarterback Heder Gladden to senior wide receiver De’Jon Major helped set up a two-yard score from Gladden. Then Major returned the second half kickoff 89 yards, setting up a three-yard run from Gladden and just like that, Artesia was up 40-29.

After both teams punted, the Rams got closer when Donte Roby Jr. scored from five yards out nearly midway through the third quarter. But Gladden quickly responded and added his third touchdown of the game, this one of 35 yards, and the hosts went up by 10 points.

But probably the play that saved the game came with 1:09 left in the third quarter when the Rams were driving for a potential touchdown. But senior safety Demarco Burton picked off Brandon Osayande in the end zone and returned it a mere two yards. Seven plays later and 41 seconds into the final stanza, Gladden scored on a 30-yard run.

After Roby added a two-yard run with 6:27 left to play, the Pioneers chewed up a lot of time and scored the game’s final touchdown, an 18-yard run from Gladden with 1:51 remaining. The Pioneers were able to score in the 50s for the second straight game and fifth time this season despite Ramona owning the time of possession. But when push came to shove, the defense came up with more stops, forcing two punts and intercepting Osayande twice.

“I think a lot of it is our defense is on the field too much because we score so fast,” Olmstead said. “We’re kind of changing defense a little bit.”

Both teams combined for nearly 1,000 yards of offense. Roby Jr. led everyone with 204 rushing yards on 26 carries and Alvarenga added another 137 yards on 17 touches. Osayande completed 13 of 26 passes for 190 yards. But the Pioneers countered with their two go-getters as Gladden rushed for 193 yards on 25 carries with his season-best five touchdowns while Davis pitched in with 110 yards on 13 rushes. Gladden also passed for 118 yards and completed seven of 11 passes.

“You get to the playoffs and everybody has guys,” Olmstead said. “It’s not one guy or another guy. You have to play defense and hope that you stop what they do. And we had enough stops tonight.

“That’s what competitors do, and that’s why they’re the guys that they are because they compete,” Olmstead later added.

Artesia, which last had eight victories in 2005, will visit Rio Hondo Prep tonight at Kare Park in Irwindale. The Pioneers are ranked third in the division while the Kares enter tonight’s contest at 7-3 and were tri-champions of the Prep League. Evan Foor has passed for 1,421 yards and 21 touchdowns while Bryant Flores just surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing yardage and has found the end zone 13 times. Defensively, Rio Hondo Prep has intercepted opposing quarterbacks nine times while sacking signal callers 23 times.

For Artesia to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history, its defense needs to be even better. The Pioneers have allowed over 25 points in 10 games and over 30 points five times. Meanwhile, the Kares have averaged close to 41 points while yielding just over 16 points. Rio Hondo Prep defeated Hawthorne High 52-35 last Friday.

“At this point, everybody is good and so, we have to play good to beat good teams,” Olmstead said. “If we play bad, we can lose to anybody [and] if we play good, we can beat anybody. I don’t really know what they do; I haven’t really looked a whole lot of them. But, we know we have to play well to win. We have to take care of the ball, we have to get a couple of stops and I think our defense will get better and better as we keep going.”