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By Zach Cavanagh
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – It was a season full of firsts for the San Juan Hills football team, but Friday night was their last.
Aquinas of San Bernardo stifled the Stallions offense and dominated the time of possession to claim the victory, 24-10, in the CIF Southern California Division 2-AA Regional Bowl Game at San Juan Hills High School.
CIF-SS Division 5 champion Aquinas (13-2) will take on Northern California champion Clayton Valley of Concord in the state championship on Friday, Dec. 13 at Cerritos College. San Juan Hills’ (11-4) first CIF-SS championship season is over.
“It was a situation where we wanted to control the ball and a little bit of the clock,” San Juan Hills coach Rob Frith said. “We wanted to be the team to run the football, and we were never able to get that rhythm offensively. To be honest with you, hats off to Aquinas. They made plays.”
San Juan Hills forced two interceptions and recovered an onside kick to open the second half, but the Stallions did not score on any of the ensuing drives. Joey Hobert and Jonah Johnson pulled in the interceptions, and kicker Kyler Isaoglu recovered the onside kick.
San Juan Hills running back Austin Hogan had averaged 126 yards rushing per game in the playoffs, but the senior was held to just 50 yards on 19 carries. Hobert only registered two catches for 1 yard. San Juan Hills ran 48 plays in the game.
Aquinas running back Terayon Sweet helped Aquinas bleed the clock with 26 carries for 107 yards and three touchdowns. Aquinas ran the ball 40 times and executed 58 plays.
“They won the battle up front and in the trenches,” Frith said. “We knew they were going to be tough. They have an attitude and physicality to them.”
Despite the loss ending the Stallions’, there weren’t many, if any, hanging heads and emotional responses for San Juan Hills after the game.
“You had two champions here tonight, playing for the opportunity to get to state,” Frith said. “(Aquinas) seized that opportunity. When you get to this point and you lose, you’re still a champion. There’s so much to celebrate.”
It was a historic season for San Juan Hills.
The Stallions program scored its second straight Sea View League championship, first CIF-SS quarterfinal win, first CIF-SS semifinal win, first CIF-SS championship and first trip to the state playoffs in only its 12th season of varsity football.
“The legacy that this senior class has left behind will never be forgotten,” Frith said. “Even if it’s repeated, there still can only be one first. This senior class and what they did this year will go down in San Juan Hills lore.”
CIF-SS Division 4 champion San Juan Hills opened the scoring in the first quarter.
The Stallions converted on a fourth down and immediately followed with a touchdown on a dime throw down the San Juan Hills from Hudson Jones to James Gaines for the 35-yard score and the lead, 7-0.
Two drives later, Aquinas seized control of the game’s rhythm.
In a drive that started in the first quarter and ended with just under four minutes left in the second quarter, the Falcons slowed the game to a near glacial pace on a 17-play, 71-yard drive. Sweet ran in a 4-yard touchdown to tie the game, 7-7.
San Juan Hills responded with its own solid drive and retook the lead on a 28-yard field goal by Isaoglu, 10-3.
With only 38 seconds left in the half and Aquinas playing at its grinding pace, most observers would have considered the half over, but the Falcons found another gear and flipped the game.
Passes of 20 yards and 38 yards set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Sweet to cap a six-play, 65-yard drive in only 35 seconds of game time. Aquinas led 14-10 at halftime.
San Juan Hills took back the ball twice to open the third quarter on the onside kick out of halftime and Johnson’s interception, but the Stallions could not get started back up.
Aquinas added a 35-yard field goal and another Sweet TD run in the fourth quarter for the 24-10 lead.
San Juan Hills tried once more to get back into the game with a strong final-minute drive, but Aquinas intercepted the Stallions in the end zone to ice the win.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports.