La Serna High School's senior defensive back Jayden Northrup (2) at the CIF Southern Section football championship against Corona Del Mar in Whittier, Calif., on Nov. 24, 2023. (Arnold Leos Graphics)
MISSION VIEJO, Calif.—Securing the first state football championship in La Serna High School’s 62-year history essentially came down to one play.
The Lancers, the pride of Whittier these days, had seen an eight-point lead narrowed to two when Grant of Sacramento used nearly 5½ minutes to drive 92 yards for a touchdown as the fourth quarter wound down in the CIF Division 2-AA championship game Dec. 8 at Saddleback College.
The Pacers, who won the CIF Division 3-AA state championship last season, lined up for a two-point conversion attempt that could have tied the game with 2:17 left and potentially forced overtime.
“We had our backs against the wall, but we weren’t giving in right there,” La Serna’s two-way senior star Owen Long told The Epoch Times. “We weren’t going to let that two-point conversion go in. I think we had like six of us in on the tackle.”
Indeed, with junior linebacker Eli Perez and junior cornerback Kalmana Tufaga at the forefront, the Lancers gang-tackled Grant running back Devin Green just short of the goal line to seal a thrilling 21–19 victory.
“That play was kind of an epitome of our season,” La Serna Coach Andy George told The Epoch Times. “As long as we have a shot, we’re going to come away with the win.”
After losing three of their first five games, the Lancers received a huge boost when transfer students Tufaga and senior quarterback and free safety C.J. Ceron became eligible at midseason. The team ran off 11 consecutive victories to finish 13–3, adding the state championship to its CIF Southern Section Division 4 and Del Rio League titles.
“It’s crazy,” Perez told The Epoch Times. “At the beginning of the season, we didn’t have the best record. To be able to come out and start rolling, dominating, winning first CIF and then state, it’s just the craziest feeling ever.”
After initially calling it “indescribable,” senior wide receiver and cornerback Jayden Northrup put a moment he said he will remember “forever” into pretty good perspective.
“Just seeing the final clock hit all zeroes and us on top was a feeling I wish everyone experienced,” he told The Epoch Times. “I’m happy that I got to experience it with my brothers and this coaching staff. Honestly, we’re going down in La Serna history. That’s all we’ve talked about. I’m just happy it happened.”
Even after making the huge stop on the Pacers’ two-point conversion attempt, the Lancers still had work to do, needing to kill the remaining time after recovering an onside kick. Long, a running back who doubles as a linebacker, lost a yard on La Serna’s ensuing play, but then bolted for 12 and a first down. After that, all that remained was for Ceron to take a knee a couple of times.
As critical as preventing Grant’s tying two-point bid was, that wasn’t even the play of the game, at least according to ESPN.
La Serna High School's senior running back Owen Long (1) at the CIF Southern Section football championship against Corona Del Mar in Whittier, Calif., on Nov. 24, 2023. (Arnold Leos Graphics)
The television programming giant tabbed Long’s are-you-kidding-me reception of a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ceron in the opening minute of the fourth quarter as the “top play” on its nightly SportsCenter broadcast. The video, with voiceover by longtime ESPN anchor Linda Cohn, will no doubt have a prominent place on Long’s personal highlight package for years to come.
Pacers two-way standout Wayshawn Parker, defending Long in the left side of the end zone, got a hand on the ball, only to have it pop in the air, and then glance off Long’s hands once, if not twice. Inexplicably, Long ultimately was able to gain possession and then backpedal quickly to make sure he stayed inbounds.
The circus catch, which gave the Lancers a 21–13 lead following senior kicker Christian Miranda’s point-after conversion, ultimately stood up as the winning touchdown.
“I don’t even know how to describe that,” Long said. “I guess God was with me right there. That didn’t take skill or anything. I guess that’s just the way the ball bounced. Ball’s in the air, we got to go get it. That’s all that happened there.”
Grant, which entered the game 12–2, had averaged 47.3 points per game, including 51.3 in four post-season outings. Twice this year, the Pacers put up 82 points in a game, and had reached at least 40 on all but three occasions.
An injury that knocked standout junior quarterback Luke Alexander out of the game late in the second quarter not only prevented Grant from potentially turning a 14–13 halftime deficit into a lead, but also left the offense in the hands of freshman backup quarterback Shiren Crump Jr. the remainder of the game.
Led by Parker, who entered the game with 1,907 yards and 24 touchdowns rushing, the Pacers still presented a significant challenge, but La Serna was up to it.
“They had never seen a defense like ours,” Mr. George said. “I don’t think they expected us to be this physical, but that’s just how we play the game. We put our defense out there a lot, asked a lot of them, and they did what they’ve been doing all year long, just playing so hard. Brian Mustain, our defensive coordinator, does an incredible job. And our offensive coordinator, John Caballero, is an incredible coach as well. Combine all those elements, and no one was going to stop us.”
La Serna High School wins CIF Southern Section football championship over Corona Del Mar in Whittier, Calif., on Nov. 24, 2023. (Arnold Leos Graphics)