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WEEK FOUR FOOTBALL – Cerritos defense puts clamps down on West Torrance for rare homecoming victory

CERRITOS HIGH senior running back Josh Park (middle) muscles his way through the West Torrance defense in last Friday night’s 27-21 homecoming victory. It was one of 10 carries for Park, who gained 36 yards as part of Cerritos’s dominating ground game that racked up nearly 300 yards. Photo by Roxy Ligorria.

September 20, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Homecoming games at the high school or college level are supposed to be festive events where you hope the home team comes away with a victory. For the Cerritos High football team, there haven’t been too many happy days when this time comes around.

The Dons entered their game with West Torrance High last Friday unsuccessful in their last seven homecoming games, 10 of their last 11, and 15 of their last 18. In fact, since 1998, Cerritos had walked away with a homecoming victory half a dozen times. But powered by a solid defensive performance, especially in the first half, Cerritos came away with a 27-21 win over the Warriors, improving to 2-2 on the season.

“Oh, it’s huge,” said Cerritos first-year head coach Demel Franklin of ending the homecoming game skid. “I’ve been here, and we lost ‘a few’ and it wasn’t even close. It’s hard to get our students motivated to think that things have changed, but it has changed. The energy is completely different, the crowd is huge. I was just figuring if we can get through the first four or five games by week six at home, we’re really going to get our stride, I believe.”

West Torrance had the ball for only 6:05 in the first half, ran 16 plays and gained 41 yards. All three possessions in the second quarter ended in interceptions, the first two from junior cornerback Marnell Smith and the third one, which came with eight seconds remaining in the half, was by senior cornerback Toby Ozoagu. 

After a scoreless opening quarter, Cerritos was looking to put the first points of the game on the board. However, senior Moises Mendoza missed a 28-yard field goal, ending a long 18-play drive that took 9:24 off the clock. But three plays later, Smith had the first of his interceptions and that turned into a four-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Justin Sagun to junior wide receiver Ruben Castro less than a minute later. 

It was another short three-play drive by the Warriors and again, the Dons parlayed that into their second touchdown. This time, Cerritos used close to three minutes to end an 11-play, 61-yard drive that culminated with a one-yard score from senior running back Josh Park with 56 seconds left in the half.

Cerritos leading 14-0 at the half was a far cry from its previous game on Aug. 31 against Portola High. In that game, it was scoreless at the half before the Bulldogs scored a touchdown in the third and fourth quarters to blank the Dons 14-0. In four games this season, Cerritos has outscored their opponents 34-21 in the first half. 

“That sat on our minds,” said Franklin. “There is no way we should have lost that game. Defensively, we played great and over the week, what we did was we ran our kids even more to make sure we were in shape. [West Torrance] was a little bit tired and we started going tempo and I have 11 more guys ready to come in. That bye week did us wonders and I hope we can stay on this wave and keep rolling.”

Despite the two touchdowns in the first half, the Dons had piled up 215 yards on 41 plays, but the third quarter would be a different story. After West Torrance punted on its first possession, it got the ball back when Ian Kilkenney recovered a fumble, leading to a 20-yard scoring pass from Eli Brandt to Justin Jaimes with 9:44 left in the quarter. But the Dons extended their lead back to 14 points when Castro returned a Brandt interception 45 yards four minutes into the stanza. 

After the Warriors were denied following a 13-play drive, they crept back into the contest when Tyler Black returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown a play after junior Josiah Ungos gained 60 yards on his first carry of the second half. But as was the case with the end of the first quarter heading into the second quarter, Cerritos chewed up nearly six minutes on its next drive. 

Castro’s 27-yard return on the ensuing kickoff put the ball at its 35-yard line and 11 plays later, junior Dikshanta Adhikari hauled in a scoring pass from senior quarterback Julian Morales for the eventual game winner. It was the second completion in three attempts for Morales, while Sagun was eight of 16 for 77 yards with one interception. 

“They told me before the game, ‘coach, when you keep rotating us, we can’t get into a rhythm’,” said Franklin. “I said, ‘okay, that’s fine. Stop throwing interceptions and I’ll stop rotating you’. By rotating the guys, it keeps the number two ready because he knows when [the starter messes] up, [the backup is] coming in. So now, you have competition.”

The Dons were looking to ice the game and were running more time off the clock. But on third and 10 from the West Torrance 40-yard line, a fumble gave the Warriors life with 1:38 left in the game. That’s when Brandt tossed a 60-yard touchdown pass to Reef Sharman, making it 27-21. However, Cerritos recovered the onside kick to hold onto the win.

Ungos led the rushing attack with 98 yards on 10 carries while Adhikari added 72 yards on 18 rushes. Sagun (four carries, 71 yards) and Park (nine carries, 36) would also help the Dons gain nearly 300 yards on 45 carries.

“Me and Josiah had a great talk after the last game,” said Franklin. “To see him run down the field and get that long run…man, that kid works hard. And he’s the biggest back we have, and he doesn’t like that I keep feeding the little guys. so, he told me, ‘coach, I’m ready’. So, I’m glad he got to contribute greatly for us.”

Castro caught half a dozen passes for 45 yards and on defense, sophomore Tyler Ky led the way with six tackles while Smith added three and a half tackles on top of his three interceptions and senior linebacker Gabe Gaudi and sophomore linebacker Jacob Hoosac each had three tackles.

CERRITOS HIGH junior cornerback Ruben Castro celebrates his 45-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter of last Friday night’s homecoming victory over West Torrance High. The pick six made the score 21-7 at the time and the Dons held on for a 27-21 victory. Photo by Roxy Ligorria.

“Our defense has been holding us down all year long,” said Franklin. “Finally, the offense can contribute. But the defense motivates us, and it puts some wind under our wings and then we get to come out and run the ball. I thought our O-line played great tonight and we were able to control the clock, and that’s what helped our defense stay fresh.

“He had a tough game the last time we were out here,” he later said of Smith. “He actually got benched. So, we were on him and physically, we challenged him. We challenged him mentally and he stepped up. That’s what these kids have been waiting for and that ignited our team, because they know how bad he played [two weeks ago]. When we made some plays, we were rolling.”

After playing three of their first four games at home, the Dons will take to the road to face a tough Westminster High squad that is coming off a tough 27-14 loss to Esperanza High. The Lions dropped to 3-2, but all three victories have been shutouts as they scored a total of 108 points during that streak which have come in between their two losses. Westminster lost its season opener to Brea Olinda High 28-26.

The Lions are a balanced team as quarterback Benny Burns has completed 44 of 95 passes for 761 yards and 11 touchdowns. Three other players have gone three of nine for 112 yards and a touchdown. The leading target is Jason Guzman (14 receptions, 281 yards, three touchdowns), but a dozen other players have caught at least one pass for at least 15 yards. On the ground, Jesus Ortega leads the way with 268 yards on 37 carries and a pair of touchdowns while Ezekiel Cedillo isn’t far behind with 231 yards on 31 carries and two touchdowns.

On defense, the Lions are averaging nearly 100 tackles a game with Evangelino Salud leading the way with 55. He also has five sacks and Cedillo four sacks as part of the 20 from nine different players.

The one common opponent for Cerritos and Westminster is Santa Ana Valley High, which fell to Gahr High 48-12 last Friday. Cerritos faces Gahr on Oct. 6.

“I have some film on them and I’m not going to lie, they have some players who can run with us,” said Franklin. “They’re going to hit [and] it’s going to be an extremely challenging game, and we have to make sure to cut our mistakes down. Because if we do what we did tonight, I don’t know if that’s going to be good enough to beat them.”