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CIF-SS Div. 11 FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS – Gahr’s offense shut down in second half by top-seeded Quartz Hill

November 5, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X/Twitter/Instagram

QUARTZ HILL-In a battle of 7-3 teams playing on a clear, crisp evening on the western side of the Antelope Valley last Friday, Gahr High was right where it wanted to be against Quartz Hill High in the CIF-Southern Section Division 11 first round playoffs. The Gladiators scored the first points of the game, was nearly even in first half yardage and was within a score of tying the top-seeded Royals by halftime.

Even after the opening drive of the second half, Gahr was still within striking range of the Royals. But Gahr was limited to 54 yards in the second half, punted on three straight possessions, then fumbled twice in a span of eight seconds late in the game as Quartz Hill knocked out the Gladiators 28-7. The second-place representatives out of the Mid-Cities League finishes the season at 7-4.

For longtime head coach Greg Marshall, he has seen this script before in the team’s other three losses, in which it has given up at least 44 points all three times and committing crucial turnovers at the worst time. This time, it was a fumble in the first quarter that led to the tying touchdown and another one later in the contest that sealed the win for Quartz Hill.

“The problem was the fumble,” said Marshall. “Every game that we’ve lost…but we stop them and [we] fumble the ball and they get it back and they score, in all our losses. We’re playing well, then we stop them and give them a short field.”

On paper, this was a battle between the leading ground gainers of both teams whose uniform number is #1 and who have rushed for 1,000 yards this season. Gahr senior running back Kalen Montgomery, who entered the game with 1,339 yards and 25 touchdowns, carried the ball on the game’s first four plays, then scored from five yards out after a 22-yard pass play from senior quarterback Frank Williams to junior wide receiver Markell Slaughter. 

The Gladiators would force the tri-champions of the Golden League to punt on their first drive of the game. But immediately, Max Gunter recovered a fumble at the Gahr 31-yard line and five plays later, Jaden Graham tied the game with a seven-yard run. Graham, who also wears #1 on his uniform, led the Royals with 1,107 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season.

After an eight-yard loss on Gahr’s first play following the tying touchdown, a holding infraction, and an incomplete pass, Gahr was pinned back at its eight-yard line facing third and 22. But Slaughter had a pair of runs totaling 22 yards. Three plays later and facing third and 11, Williams found senior wide receiver Noah Taylor for 12 yards. The Gladiators would eventually get to the Quartz Hill 40-yard line before turning the ball over on downs. Four plays later, Graham’s 41-yard touchdown gave the hosts a 14-7 lead. 

The Gladiators answered back thanks to Montgomery gaining 11 yards on five plays and senior wide receiver Myles Merchant hauling in a 47-yard reception to get the ball to the six-yard line. But on third and goal, Williams was intercepted by Daryl Lawrence at the two-yard line with 1:19 left before halftime.

“We had the guy wide open; we just couldn’t execute the play,” said Marshall. “I told them in the playoffs, you can’t leave points on the board.”

Gahr had put together 173 yards of offense in the first half despite the two turnovers, but the second half would be a different story. On the third play following intermission, Graham was at it again, scoring on a 59-yard run to increase the score and to make things worse for Gahr, the stanza would see Gahr run 11 plays and punt twice while the Royals were held on downs on their second possession and punted less than a minute into the fourth quarter.

With the score still 21-7, Gahr put together another solid drive, this one of 5:22. But for the third straight time in the second half, it ended in a punt and with 5:41 left in the game, the Royals knew it had to stay with the run and chew up some time.

The final score of the game came when Slaughter caught an 18-yard pass, was immediately hit on a questionable helmet to helmet play and fumbled. The ball was picked up by Lawrence who returned it 45 yards for the final score.

“We were fine until the second half,” said Marshall. “They kind of got us offensively. We couldn’t put anything together.”

Williams was seven of 15 for 114 yards but had a hard time getting his footing as he slipped backwards several times, especially in the second half while Montgomery wrapped up his Gahr career with 82 yards on 24 carries. Slaughter picked up 35 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 30 yards. Merchant also caught two passes for 65 yards while on defense, senior linebacker Royal Nwoso and junior linebacker Isaiah Portillo each had four and a half tackles while Merchant and Slaughter each added three tackles.

“I don’t think we handled the turf very well,” said Marshall. “I don’t know if we all needed to get new cleats or not play on grass. But we were slipping, and we didn’t look very fast tonight.

“We were missing our assignments,” he continued. “The inside linebacker; we never picked up and we weren’t good on our combinations tonight. So, we were never able to spring [our running backs]. We were just off tonight.”

For Quartz Hill, which will face Linfield Christian High in the quarterfinals, it was all about Graham, who had a season-high 205 yards on 28 carries, five of which went for at least 11 yards. Only twice did he not get positive yardage. Quarterback Brody Larey was six of 18 for 78 yards.

“I had to change the defense; I had to go to a four-man line,” said Marshall of defending Graham. “And it slowed him down. Other than that one long play, we pretty much managed him once we changed the defense. I thought we did a good job of adjusting to him.”

This was Gahr’s first trip to the playoffs since 2019 and sixth in school history. But the Gladiators have not won a postseason game since 2007 when Corey Nielsen and his 4,363 yards and 35 touchdowns through the air guided them to a semifinal appearance where they lost to St. Paul High 18-14. Before that season, Gahr’s only other trip to the quarterfinals was in 1974 when it fell to El Dorado High 42-14 in the 2A Division.

“When your consistent and you build it, then you’re happy with the product you put on the field because there’s a lot of hard work,” said Marshall. “Being in the [Mid-Cities] league helps that. Being in the league really helps our ability to build the program. We’re losing a lot of seniors, but as far as our numbers we have 80 kids in the program. We do have half the line coming back; we have enough to build on and we have some big, young linemen coming back.

“But for us, we have to figure out what we have and put it back together and try to go in the right direction again,” he continued. “I think we’ll be okay. It shouldn’t be a big drop-off.”