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CIF-SS Div. 12 SEMIFINAL GAME – Another first quarter surge sends Cerritos to its first trip to divisional finals

Cerritos High senior linebacker Jeremiah Bagaygay picks off Derek Calderon of Coachella Valley High in the second quarter of last Friday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 12 semifinal game and returns it 25 yards for a touchdown. The Dons would hold off a late rally to defeat the Fighting Arabs and will play for the school’s first football championship on Saturday against Yucca Valley High. PHOTO BY J.B. QUIBRANTAR.

November 21, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

For the third straight game in the CIF-Southern Section Division 12 playoffs, Cerritos High blanked its opponent in the opening quarter, then watched first half leads of 14-0, 35-6 and 28-0 evaporate before holding onto a victory. Fortunately for the Dons, they never trailed in any of those games, thanks to a constant offensive push and stellar defensive plays.

Cerritos built a 28-0 lead over Coachella Valley High last Friday night, then saw it dwindle to a one-possession contest before putting the Thermal-based team away in a 42-28 win at Dr. Hanford Rants Stadium, earning the program’s first trip to the divisional finals. The Dons, who have won six in a row and improved to 8-5, scoring over 35 points in four of those wins, will host second-seeded Yucca Valley High on Saturday at Artesia High.

“I’m extremely excited,” said senior linebacker Jeremiah Bagaygay. “I can’t wait to come out next week. We should all be proud of my teammates right now. We weren’t expecting to win this game, but we came out and showed the [number one] team what’s up.

“This game means a lot,” he later added. “There were a lot of unfortunate events happening around school and this means a lot for the school and the community. I just really wanted to go out there and play my heart out.”

Cerritos High senior running back Josh Park celebrates his fourth quarter 19-yard touchdown run against Coachella Valley High in last Friday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 12 semifinal game. Park gained 156 yards and scored three times in the 42-28. PHOTO BY J.B. QUIBRANTAR.

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He was just one of several key players who would have a big hand in the outcome, and it started in the second quarter. With the Dons up 14-0 on the strength of senior running back Josh Park, who scored a 15-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter and a four-yard touchdown scamper in the middle of the second quarter, Bagaygay picked off Derek Calderon on the next play after Park’s second touchdown and returned the rock 25 yards for a 21-0 lead. Later in the stanza, he recovered a fumble, setting up a nine-yard touchdown run from senior quarterback Julian Morales. Just in the first quarter alone, Bagaygay had four tackles, a fumble recovery, an interception, and a sack. He ended the game with half a dozen tackles.

“My brother said we needed to get Bagaygay going,” said Cerritos first-year head coach Demel Franklin. “So, we put him on kickoff returns and we had a package for him on offense. We didn’t get to that, and I made him a captain. I was just trying to do anything I can to motivate him, and it paid off.”

The lead seemed to be what the Dons needed as they were facing their third straight challenge in the postseason. A 14-0 halftime over fourth-seeded Fillmore High in the first round was soon a 14-12 advantage entering the fourth quarter. A 28-0 first quarter lead and 35-6 halftime lead over Western Christian High a week later ended up being a 55-44 victory.

Against the Fighting Arabs, the 605 League champions had 168 yards in the first half while containing their Aaron Ramirez, who entered the game with over 2,000 yards on the ground, to 45 yards on 11 carries. On top of that, Calderon had five straight plays of negative yardage.

Cerritos High sophomore linebacker Bailey Crawford (#44) tackles Aaron Ramirez of Coachella Valley High in the fourth quarter of last Friday night’s 42-28 victory in a CIF-Southern Section Division 12 semifinal game. The Dons advanced to Saturday night’s championship game against Yucca Valley High. PHOTO BY J.B. QUIBRANTAR.

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“I thought it would go more back and forth,” said Franklin. “I knew we could score on them because we had some advantages. I knew we could score; I didn’t count on them scoring that quick. That was not fun.”

“It happened to us against Yucca Valley on Oct. 6,” said Coachella Valley head coach Bill Johnson on the early deficit. “We actually got down really heavy in the first quarter. We rallied to be down by 11, then had a shot to get it down to four. We’ve gotten ourselves into holes and rallied back and in these playoffs, we’ve been down in both games and rallied back to win.

“There were three lead changes in our first round [win], there were three lead changes in our quarterfinal [win],” he continued. “We just got behind and [our] offense put [our] defense in some holes here and made it easier for Cerritos to get out by as much as they did.”

But limiting a team that had scored over 500 points this season for the second straight week was not going to be easy. Miguel Rodriguez returned the second half kickoff 92 yards for a score and after Cerritos was forced to punt after a three and out, Ramirez got his groove going and scored from seven yards out. Later in the stanza, Calderon connected Rodrguez for 25 yards and just like that, it was 28-21.

The Dons would score on the ensuing possession, going 57 yards on nine plays, ending with sophomore quarterback Justin Sagun finding junior wide receiver John Lim for 17 yards and entering the fourth quarter, the Dons were up 35-21.

On Coachella Valley’s first drive of the final stanza, a Calderon 41-yard touchdown pass to Ramirez ended a nine-play drive that included Calderon being sacked by sophomore linebacker Bailey Crawford for a 13-yard loss. But the home team answered back on the next possession with five straight runs from Park and junior running backs Dikshanta Adhikari and Josiah Ungos totaling 46 yards, a 12-yard reception to Adhikari, then two more Park runs of three and 19 yards, the last being the final touchdown.

“What I saw was we kicked it off and they ran it in, which gave them juice, and then my team got deflated,” said Franklin of the second half adjustments. “If we give up a touchdown, that’s what we need to work on. We get deflated and then they kept the foot on the gas and the next thing you know, it’s 28-14.”

“We were just not playing well, and we just talked to the guys about it’s going to come within,” said Johnson. “It’s not going to come from a schematic change. We got the opening kickoff return and took it to the house and that just electrified the guys. we were able to make some changes and start to exploit the back end.”

The Fighting Arabs, who finished in second place in the Desert Valley League and had won five straight games since falling to league champion Yucca Valley, would have two more chances to make the game closer. However, Calderon would be intercepted by sophomore Jayden Bagaygay and Lim on consecutive possessions.

While Calderon finished the contest completing 20 of 30 passes for 221 yards, including seven straight to begin the second half, he was hurt by the three interceptions. Ramirez, who was Cerritos’ 100 percent focus, according to Jeremiah Bagaygay, finished with 150 yards on 24 carries. No other Coachella Valley rusher gained more than six yards on any carry.

“He’s fast and very shifty,” said Bagaygay. “But I just had more faith in our guys than theirs and I knew we could get the job done.”

“You see, they have a running back,” said Franklin. “I saw him on film, and I thought he was small. I saw him before the game, and he wasn’t that big. But man, he’s electric; he breaks tackles, he’s quick and he’s way bigger than I thought. The first half looked good. The second half, they must have had a great speech and some adjustments because they gave us all we could handle.”

While the defense slowed down Ramirez to 150 yards, Park posted a career-high 146 yards on 22 carries while Adhikari had 86 yards on 20 touches. Defensively, junior linebacker Nathaniel Crawford led everyone with 13 tackles and a sack while sophomore linebacker Tyler Ky had 10 tackles, Lim had nine and the interception and junior linebacker Devyn Chantha added seven tackles.

“Hey, he’s so emotional and last year, he had to wait,” said Franklin of Park. “Remember, he was behind another guy who was really, really good. So, he has been waiting for this moment, and I’ve been telling him there will be a time when we need [him]. This is when we needed him.”

“We knew they had a strong run defense, and we like to run the football,” said Johnson. “I can look at the previous games and see that they really didn’t give up very many 100-yard rushers. They were very successful in stopping the run and without having to add extra bodies to the box. We thought we could have done better than what we did.”