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605 LEAGUE FOOTBALL Flores, Padilla guide Artesia’s fourth quarter surge over Glenn as Pioneers get second place

October 31, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The numbers were on the side of Artesia High when it hosted John Glenn High last Friday in the regular season finale, with second place on the line in the 605 League and an automatic berth in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs at stake. In the brief history of the league, not including the 2020 season, teams that had won their league opener had reached the playoffs seven out of eight times entering this season.

Artesia and Cerritos High both won their league openers two weeks ago and with Cerritos defeating the Pioneers last week, Artesia needed to beat Glenn to grab second place, and that’s what happened as junior running back Julius Padilla and sophomore running back Josue Flores scored touchdowns in a span of 3:54 in the fourth quarter as the Pioneers rallied for a 28-20 win. Artesia (6-4, 2-1) enters the playoffs as the top seed in Division 14 and will host Temecula Prep on Friday. After missing the postseason in 2022, it’s the fourth time in five seasons the Pioneers have reached the playoffs since the inception of the league. 

“I’m just really happy for the kids; they deserved it,” said Artesia first-year head coach Connor Crook. “During spring, it was rough because there was the [coaching] change and we’re trying to start something new. But they persevered and they battled all summer and got better, and they worked very hard for this. So, I’m really proud for the kids.”

“Oh man, it feels good,” said junior quarterback Charlie Lopez. “It feels good, especially to the seniors. It’s a team sport, so everyone has to do their part, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Lopez, who tweaked his left ankle a few weeks ago and missed the Oct. 5 game at Garey High, gained over 100 yards on the ground for the seventh time in nine games.

With the score tied 14-14 at the half, the Pioneers forced a three and out to begin the second half, then closed out the final 9:27 of the third quarter on a long 14-play, 81-yard drive that took them to the three-yard line. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Lopez gained two yards, then was stopped inches short of scoring just 42 seconds into the final stanza.

With no margin for error, Glenn got out of trouble when sophomore quarterback Luis-Manuel Vergara tossed a 74-yard touchdown pass around the left side to junior running back Tuiono Tuifua. The two-point conversion rush attempt was unsuccessful, and with 8:27 remaining in regulation, the Eagles (6-4, 1-2) were in control.

“We definitely felt like we had the momentum,” said Glenn first-year head coach Elijhaa Penny. “But again, I’m just going to keep on harping on this. I know we’re deep into the season, but the ball didn’t bounce for us. That’s about it. But what I’m glad about tonight is just these kids…they’re so tough. They showed a lot of resiliencies.

“Again, we felt like we had the momentum,” he continued. “But on defense, we let a couple of big plays crack right after the injury. We could blame those things as to why we got cold; lost the momentum or whatever. But that’s a part of the game and it happens.”

“It’s tough when you have a drive like that and it doesn’t end in our way for whatever reason, sometimes reasons outside of our control,” said Crook. “But I told the guys we were driving on them all night and we can’t let that get us down. They picked me up too because I was frustrated.

“We have this motto, ‘hold on to the rope’,” he continued. “That [means] when things get tough, hold on and don’t let go. And they did a great job of that tonight, especially on offense because that was pretty rough after that nine-minute drive.”

An injury to an Artesia player on the ensuing kickoff led to a lengthy delay and when play resumed, the Pioneers grabbed the momentum away from Glenn that it had built following the goal line stand and go-ahead touchdown. On the first play after the delay, Padilla had a 46-yard gain, followed by runs of 15, six and five yards from Lopez, leading to a 15-yard touchdown run from Flores.

The Eagles would be stopped on downs at their own 40-yard line and Padilla took over, gaining six yards, then 31 more and finally scoring the insurance touchdown from three yards out with 2:37 remaining in the contest. Glenn’s last chance for a potential tie was turned away by Lopez, who broke up a pass at the six-yard line with 23.5 seconds left.

“That was huge by those guys,” said Crook. “You never know what it’s going to be like coming out of long delay like that. But Charlie, Josue and Julius…those guys have been our playmakers all year and when we relied on them to make plays, they did it. That’s what it takes, and that’s why I’m pretty confident going into the playoffs, that those guys are going to continue to make plays for us.”

Both teams were off and running in the first quarter as Padilla’s four-yard run gave the Pioneers a 7-0 lead just over four minutes into the contest. But Glenn came right back and after a combination of runs from Tuifua and sophomore Da’Ron Walker, the Eagles were facing third and goal from the 18-yard line. That’s where Vergara tossed an 18-yard score to junior wide receiver Jacob Ramirez. Tuifua added the two-point run and with 2:05 left in the first quarter, Glenn had an 8-7 advantage.

After an Artesia punt, the only one of the game for the hosts, the Eagles engineered a 15-play, 73-yard drive that ended when Vergara scored from two yards out. The two-point conversion was missed, and Artesia took advantage when Lopez got loose for a 51-yard scamper, tying the game with 82 seconds remaining in the half.

“We have to be 100 percent prepared for everything,” said Lopez. “We put our best players in; our best 11 on the field and we just balled out. Keep going until the whistle is blown.”

After seeing the Eagles get 139 yards on 28 plays in the first half, the Artesia defense put the clamps on the double wing offense in the second half, limiting Glenn to negative yardage in the third quarter and 22 yards on 11 plays in the fourth quarter, not including Glenn’s final touchdown or its final drive of the game. 

“The defense battled their butts off tonight,” said Crook. “This is a new offense that we don’t see a lot. A lot of teams don’t really run the double wing anymore. So, they prepared for only a few days, and they battled. It was tough, but they battled, and it was great.”

Penny admitted he took his older guys out of the game following the 20-14 lead because they go both ways, and they needed a breather. That could have been attributed to the Pioneers cutting through Glenn’s defense for the last two touchdowns.

Tuifua, who had eight games of over 100 yards rushing this season, was limited to a season-low 39 yards in 18 carries. But Vergara picked up the slack by completing 11 of 18 passes for 218 yards with Tuifua catching three for 92 yards and Ramirez another two for 33 yards. On defense, Ramirez and sophomore linebacker Josiah Alcala each had five tackles.

“I just can’t think of anyone else but Eli Manning when I see him,” said Penny of Vergara. “Just because in practice, he’s not going to wow you. He’s not going to make big time throws. He’s not going to make big time runs. But he’s definitely a gamer; he’s a baller and he shows up to work every day. He’s ready to do whatever.”

For Artesia, Lopez had 169 yards on 16 carries and completed all three of his passes to junior tight end Ahkil Sampson for 37 yards. Padilla added 126 yards on 13 carries while Flores pitched in with 21 yards on five touches.

“His ankle was bothering him a little bit,” said Crook of Lopez. “But he battled all night and never asked to sit out. He was ready to go all night. Not too much to complain about.”

“It feels good to have your teammates support you in every way,” said Lopez.

Since advancing to the Division 12 championship game during the inaugural season of the league, the Pioneers had combined to go 7-25-1 entering this season. One more win for Artesia will mark the fifth time since 2005 that the program will have posted at least seven wins in a season.

“No one would have thought that,” said Lopez. “But fortunately, we did do that. We fought back from last year. Last year was something else, but we came back. We proved a lot of people wrong.”