Irvine High School Football Coach Tom Ricci speaks to the team after its 20-12 victory over Beckman on Oct. 19, 2023. (Courtesy of Josh Harrell)
Quarterback Sina Saferzadeh identified a seemingly simple and logical plan for Irvine High School’s key Pacific Hills League football game against crosstown rival University on Oct. 27.
“We need to drive down the field early, and we need to score early,” Saferzadeh told The Epoch Times. “We can’t be behind again. We need to dominate the first half.”
Given that Saferzadeh is a mere sophomore, with only three varsity starts on his resume, he can be forgiven for not fully grasping the concept that breaking from the gate quickly just doesn’t seem to be Irvine’s style. The Vaqueros, from Orange County, California, are comeback kids if there ever has been such a thing.
“We’ve been behind in multiple games over the last three years,” Coach Tom Ricci told The Epoch Times after Irvine erased a 12-point, second-half deficit in a 20–12 victory over Beckman on Oct. 19. “I think we counted 16, 17 games where we were behind at the beginning and came back. It seems like that’s kind of our M.O.”
Make no mistake, though. Mr. Ricci wouldn’t mind seeing the Vaqueros employ the strategy outlined by his precocious quarterback.
Irvine sophomore quarterback Sina Saferzadeh unleashes a pass. (Courtesy of Josh Harrell)
“I’m just hoping we can not give me a heart attack and start a game full speed for once,” he said.
At 6–3 overall, including 2–0 in Pacific Hills play, Irvine can claim an outright league championship and build further momentum for a CIF Southern Section playoff run with a victory over visiting University.
The Vaqueros’ title hopes were in serious jeopardy last week when Beckman drove 73 yards for a touchdown to double a 6–0 halftime advantage midway through the third quarter. Until that point, Irvine had done very little offensively, picking up only 84 total yards and four first downs on four possessions.
The Vaqueros, in fact, had run only three offensive plays and owned the ball for just a minute and 52 seconds by the time Beckman’s Gui De Luca kicked his second field of the game 2:37 into the second quarter.
“The one thing with this team over the last three to four years, there’s no quit,” Mr. Ricci said. “They fight to the end, and they believe they’re going to win. You turn around on the sidelines, we could be down by two or three touchdowns, and our kids don’t have that [defeated] look in their eyes. They have that look in their eyes like, ‘We’re just going to go down the field, we’re going to score, and we’re going to win this football game.’ I just love that mentality.”
Like the rest of the Vaqueros, junior running back Brandon Figueroa shook off the slow start in the second half, when Irvine scored on three consecutive series.
Figueroa ran for a 12-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, Saferzadeh scored a go-ahead touchdown on a 9-yard keeper early in the fourth, and Figueroa capped the outburst with a 1-yard touchdown plunge with 5:02 left.
“We knew it was now or never that we had to score, or we were going to lose the game,” Figueroa told The Epoch Times.
At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, Figueroa wasn’t always the obvious choice to be the featured ball carrier.
“I was never really allowed to play tackle football, or football in general,” he said. “I always played baseball growing up, but then freshman year I joined the football team. I was originally a lineman. I didn’t like that. So, I tried to work hard. I ended up playing fullback and defensive end. And then sophomore year, I was able to push even more, and then my junior year I was able to become the starting running back.”
Irvine junior running back Brandon Figueroa breaks a tackle. (Courtesy of Josh Harrell)
After gaining an even 100 yards against Beckman, his fifth game this season reaching the century mark, Figueroa is 5 yards short of 1,000, with 13 touchdowns to his credit.
Saferzadeh, too, is something of a surprise. Called on after the Vaqueros lost junior quarterback Khoa Bui to injury in late September, the 6-foot, 175-pound Saferzadeh has parlayed a strong arm and physical running ability into a nice dual-threat package.
“My team has mostly helped me step up into this job,” Saferzadeh said. “I have a really good [offensive] line. Khoa Bui has really helped me out, as well, and my coaches. And the defense is bailing me out a lot.”
Buoyed by the return from injury of senior tackles Cyrus Doherty and Alex Godinez and sparked by strong play from senior middle linebacker Carson Walker and junior end Tommy Clarke, Irvine’s defense shut down Beckman when it mattered most.
The Patriots managed only 54 yards of total offense and four first downs on their final three possessions, with a last-ditch effort to tie the game stopped on downs at the Vaqueros’ 19-yard line.
“Since we always end up going deep into the fourth quarter trying to win the game, our guys are conditioned well enough to handle it,” Mr. Ricci said. “I hate it, but we’re a second-half team. We just are.”