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WEEK ONE FOOTBALL – Gahr survives penalties, late Valley Christian rally to escape with one-point road win in opener

August 28, 2023

By Loren Kopff

Valley Christian High sophomore running back Lucas Witt sees an opening between Gahr High senior defensive back Gabriel Mariscal (#24) and junior lineman Alejandro Duenas in last Friday night’s Gahr 21-20 victory. Witt led the Defenders with 71 yards on 13 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE FERICEAN.


For the first three quarters of last Friday’s game between Artesia Blvd. neighbors Gahr High and host Valley Christian High, each team had one touchdown. It was a defensive game, sprinkled in with some notable injuries for both squads and when the fourth quarter began, the offenses kicked into another gear with some drama at the end. 

The teams scored on five of the six drives in the final stanza, the last coming with no time remaining in regulation. But following V.C. sophomore running back Lucas Witt’s four-yard run, first-year head coach Trent Berkenkamp decided to go for the win instead of the tie. That’s where senior running back Dylan Sawai came up short by half a yard, giving Gahr a season-opening 21-20 victory. 

“It was just about as exciting as you can make it,” said Gahr head coach Greg Marshall of the fourth quarter. “It wasn’t very good football at the end there. But I have to give my kids credit because we had some kids go down and we were patching it together.”

Valley Christian High junior wide receiver Austin Abrahams tries to escape the grasp of Gahr High senior linebacker Ethan Whiteman in last Friday night’s 21-20 Gahr win. Abrahams caught three passes for 57 yards and one touchdown. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE FERICEAN.


He was referring to the six penalties called on Gahr in the final 12 minutes, including a pair of pass interference infractions on the final drive of the game that kept the Defenders (1-1) alive for Witt’s touchdown. For the game, Gahr was penalized 14 times for 135 yards.

“It’s preseason for us; it’s not league play, so for us, it was an opportunity to finish the game,” said Berkenkamp. “We had the momentum on our side. We felt like we could get three yards, and we came up short. I don’t regret the decision; I’ll always put the ball in our offenses’ hands any day. We ran the ball so well, I thought we could run it one more time to get three yards and we came up six inches short. That’s kind of how it goes; that’s football and it’s a game of inches and we just came up a little short.” 

On the first play of the fourth quarter, junior Noah Hernandez put Gahr in front with a 22-yard field goal. Four plays later, the Defenders answered back when senior quarterback Joe DeYoung connected with junior wide receiver Austin Abrahams for a 50-yard touchdown on a blown coverage by Gahr’s defense. That made the score 14-9 with 9:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. However, the Gladiators started their next drive at their 30-yard line and chewed up over seven and a half minutes off the clock, running 13 plays and ending up with a three-yard run from senior running back Kalen Montgomery. Gahr went for the two-point conversion and the pass from senior quarterback Frank Williams was unsuccessful.

With 1:59 remaining, Gahr had a 15-14 lead and was feeling better about itself when the defense held V.C. on downs 47 seconds later. A pair of negative running plays, followed by senior cornerback Ahmeer Barner breaking up a DeYoung pass intended for senior wide receiver Isaiah Jordan and an incomplete pass gave Gahr the ball at the V.C. 26-yard line.

An unsportsmanlike infraction would push the Gladiators back, but two Montgomery runs, the second of which resulted in a 39-yard score, made it 21-14 with 59.5 seconds left. But here came the Defenders and on second and seven from the Gahr 44, DeYoung tossed a 13-yard pass to Witt, who then gained 10 yards on the next play and with 18.4 seconds left, the hosts called a timeout.

That was followed by an incomplete pass with 13. 4 seconds left, a pass interference call on Gahr with eight seconds left and a seven-yard run by DeYoung with 1.1 seconds left as senior defensive back Gabriel Mariscal pushed the quarterback out of bounds at the four-yard line. On the next play, Witt scored, making it 21-20.

“Instead of going home, we’re fighting for our lives,” said Marshall of V.C.’s last touchdown. 

“I’m very proud of the offense and the way they responded in that moment, to get the ball back with one minute [left] and to be able to drive the length of the field in under a minute was great,” said Berkenkamp. “Joe led the charge; we had some guys step up in those moments. I’m just proud of the offense and I told them that at the postgame meeting just now. Not too many offenses are able to take it down [the field] and score like that.

Senior running back Kalen Montgomery of Gahr High leaves sophomores Sean Bouma (#14), Lucas Witt and the rest of the Valley Christian High defense behind him during last Friday night’s battle for Artesia Blvd, Montgomery led everyone with 155 yards on 26 carries and scored all three touchdowns in Gahr’s 21-20 victory. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE FERICEAN.


“It was just a battle between both of us [in the fourth quarter] and we’re young and we’re still learning,” he continued. “We had some injuries that kind of knocked us down a little bit. Some guys had to step up and I think we’re going to grow from this.”

Gahr came out blazing to begin the game as Montgomery gained 42 yards on the first four plays. He would open the game’s scoring five plays later when he went in from eight yards out nearly five and a half minutes into the contest. The two-point pass conversion would be unsuccessful and when the Defenders got the ball, they moved to the 12-yard line before Gahr junior linebacker Ja’Shon Wallace sacked DeYoung for an eight-yard loss. 

DeYoung then threw two straight incomplete passes and Gahr had stopped V.C. with 47 seconds left in the first quarter. But Witt would put his team on the board with 3:41 left in the half with a six-yard run.

The second half began with Gahr recovering an onside kick but three plays into the half, Williams was picked off by sophomore linebacker Cole Hefner. While the Defenders couldn’t capitalize on it, Gahr would run out the final 7:41 of the quarter before the field goal. The Gladiators would convert a third down and a fourth down before the end of the stanza. However, senior tight end, linebacker and kicker Calvin Thomas III went down with a right leg injury with 3:48 left in the third quarter. 

“I think our biggest problem is we had so many guys go down in the first half,” said Marshall. “Calvin went down, [senior linebacker] Ethan [Whiteman] went down; there were five or six guys that went down.”

Williams completed 11 of his 20 passes for 69 yards and two interceptions with six of those passes going to senior wide receiver Evan Spurlin-Renfroe for 51 yards while Montgomery, one of the top runners in the area and in the Mid-Cities League, gained 155 yards on 26 carries and the three scores. On defense, Barner had five tackles, junior linebacker Isaiah Portillo had four tackles and junior cornerback Markell Slaughter and Mariscal each added three tackles.

“I think with [Williams], being his first game…he’s going to play better,” said Marshall. “I thought he did pretty good for his first time out. It’s the first time he’s seeing it live, so I think down the road…he’ll be fine.

“I think Kalen kind of hit his spot [in the third quarter], and I think [senior fullback] Noah [Taylor] came back too,” he later said. “That really helped us with the run game. They were the same plays we were running all night. We knew we were in four down territory, then we did hit that big rollout to Evan to keep things going.”

“They’re very, very athletic, so they’re going to have guys open in space,” said Berkenkamp. “Like I said, we’re just young. So, open field tackling is something we have to definitely work on. But when you only have 31 kids, it’s hard to pound that on them every single week.”

For V.C., which was blasted by El Dorado High 49-6 the previous week, it got solid performances from De Young (six of 15 for 113 yards) and Witt (13 carries for 71 yards) while defensively, Hefner led the way with 11 tackles while Abrahams and Jordan had six and five tackles respectively.  

“Both those guys are just playmakers,” said Berkenkamp of Hefner and Witt. “They’re studs, and both are sophomores and I’m super excited for their future in this program, on both sides of the ball. Cole is playing linebacker and he’s flying all over the field. Not many guys are like Cole where he can just flip the switch as soon as the light turns on. He’s all over the field from sideline to sideline, making plays and making big hits.

“And then Lucas on the offensive side of the ball was huge for us,” he continued. “Obviously when he was out, it was a little bit tougher for us to run the football without him. He’s just a smart kid…and I just love his grit. They’re both blue-collared guys who put in the work and I’m just excited for them.”

Gahr will host Ocean View High, a 22-7 winner at Anaheim High last Friday. Frankie Armenta passed for 269 yards on just seven completions and a pair of touchdowns and the Seahawks defense limited Anaheim to 147 yards. Armenta has averaged just over 200 yards in the two games while the defense has given up 19 points thus far.

“Obviously we have to get the passing game going,” said Marshall. 

For the Defenders, they will travel to Aliso Niguel High, which evened its record following a 34-6 win at Silver Valley High last Saturday. 

“It’s tough because Aliso Niguel is a really good football team as well,” said Berkenkamp. “It’s going to be a tough game for us. But like I’ve told these guys all along, the first five games are really preseason. We have to be ready for league, and it’s not really about the opponent right now. It’s about us. We have to learn to grow up and we have to get some leaders on this team who are going to take charge.”