By Zach Cavanagh
NEWPORT BEACH – A second-half surge brought the San Juan Hills football team tantalizingly close to victory on Thursday night, but Corona del Mar kept the Stallions searching.
San Juan Hills retook the lead minutes into the fourth quarter, but Corona del Mar’s passing connection reignited put the Sea Kings back ahead with three minutes remaining to hold off the Stallions, 27-22, on Thursday, Sept. 15, at Newport Harbor High School.
San Juan Hills (0-5) returns to the Badlands next Friday, Sept. 23, to host El Modena for Homecoming.
“First and foremost, all credit to Corona del Mar,” San Juan Hills coach Rob Frith said. “Dan O’Shea is a very good head coach. He’s got a very good staff. They don’t make a lot of mistakes, and they’re having to deal with some adversity on their end. Hats off to them.”
Corona del Mar (4-1) was paced by its air game with 323 yards passing and three touchdowns from quarterback Kaleb Annett and 212 yards receiving and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score, from Cooper Hoch. Annett started his third game in place of injured starter and UC Davis commit David Rasor.
San Juan Hills scored its three touchdowns all on the ground, with two scores from Sullivan Land and the early fourth-quarter score by Michael “Butter” Tollefson. Tollefson had a solid bounce back game after last week’s shutout, as he had help up front with the returns of senior linemen Ryan MacDougall and Enzo Benzan. Starting senior tight end Brayden Bockler remained out with a hand injury.
San Juan Hills is 0-5 for the second consecutive season. However, the Stallions have fought through key injuries and against another talented schedule, with a 10-point loss to the Santa Margarita of the Trinity League, a double-overtime loss at Roosevelt of Eastvale and this five-point loss at Corona del Mar.
After Thursday’s games, San Juan Hills’ five opponents have a combined 20-2 record, with the only losses being Santa Margarita’s 69-49 loss to CIF-SS No. 5 Los Alamitos on Thursday and Corona del Mar’s 23-6 loss to San Clemente last week. Next week’s opponent El Modena is 3-0.
“There’s outcome goals, and there’s process goals,” Frith said. “The outcome goals are stats, wins, losses and all that stuff. The numbers. The process goals are are you getting better? Are you getting better each and every week? And that’s how we measure ourselves. That’s why we play the teams we play.”
And in Frith’s eyes, is San Juan Hills getting better despite its record?
“Absolutely,” Frith said. “I saw some things out of my guys tonight, man. Huge strides. Guys that came back healthy making great plays. At the end of the day, it’s always disappointing to lose. You never want to lose. I’d rather learn lessons in a ‘W’ than evaluate yourself in a loss, but I am proud of my kids.”
Frith could be proud of the comeback San Juan Hills made in the second half.
Corona del Mar pushed ahead by two scores, 21-8, midway through the third quarter.
After finally winning the field position battle, San Juan Hills started a drive in Sea Kings territory at he 48-yard line. The Stallions offensive line locked into gear with a big opening run by Land of 18 yards and protecting Tollefson, who completed two passes and ran San Juan Hills to the 5-yard line. Land scored on a 2-yard run to cut the deficit, 21-15.
San Juan Hills got a stop, and the Stallions then drove the length of the field in just six plays. Tollefson sprang forward on a 27-yard run and hit Briggs Marquis just short of the end zone on a 37-yard pass. Tollefson pounded in a 3-yard run himself to put San Juan Hills ahead, 22-21, with just under 10 minutes left.
“In the first half, we had some struggles, but we got (the offensive line) together under the tent,” Frith said. “We looked at some things, made some adjustments and challenged them. Who do you want to be? What do you want to be known for? Go out there and win the second half.”
However, the Stallions could only equal Corona del Mar for second-half touchdowns.
After the teams traded 3-and-outs, the Sea Kings’ passing attack reignited as Annett took over the game. A 15-yard catch-and-run to Hoch put Corona del Mar in the lead with just over three minutes remaining. The Sea Kings couldn’t convert the two-point pass but were ahead, 27-22.
San Juan Hills still had time and got two first downs from Tollefson to Jack Shigo and to Colton Chase. A pass interference penalty on Corona del Mar salvaged a third-and-13 for San Juan Hills, but that would be all for the Stallions. Corona del Mar sacked Tollefson on the next third down and deflected a pass on fourth down to ice the win.
Tollefson completed 16 of 28 passes for 139 yards and carried the ball 19 times for 49 yards and a score. Land carried the ball 12 times for 55 yards and two touchdowns. Chase caught six passes for 51 yards.
San Juan Hills also had a strong start before Corona del Mar’s push, as the Stallions scored off a turnover in the first quarter.
First, the Stallions denied the Sea Kings points with an interception by Ryan Haghani in the endzone. San Juan Hills capitalized with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in an 8-yard TD run by Land and a two-point conversion run by Tollefson for the 8-0 lead.
But Corona del Mar showcased its quality with a 90-yard journey on the ensuing drive. Annett found Hoch for a 44-yard springboard, and the Sea Kings ran in a 7-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to one point.
After forcing one of three San Juan Hills first-half 3-and-outs, Corona del Mar took advantage of a short field on a 44-yard drive. Annett threw his first touchdown pass to Hoch (9 yards) for the lead, 14-8, that the Sea Kings took into half time.
San Juan Hills struggled on third down throughout the game with only seven conversions on 17 attempts, three of which came on Corona del Mar penalties.
On the first drive of the second half, Corona del Mar was aided by two San Juan Hills personal fouls on a six-minute, 11-play, 78-yard drive. A second Annett touchdown pass put the Sea Kings up by two scores, 21-8.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple 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 and Instagram @South_OC_Sports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.