June 21, 2024

Sierra Canyon’s unbeaten football season was slipping away Friday night against an energized Gardena Serra team that kept matching the Trailblazers touchdown for touchdown.

The score was tied 28-28 with 2:51 left. Sierra Canyon faced fourth and 21 from the Serra 36. The Trailblazers asked kicker Ashton Zamani to make a 53-yard field goal. Serra tried to block it. The kick fell short, but Serra was called for a 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty.

“They did hit me,” Zamani said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Given a first down, Sierra Canyon scored the winning touchdown with 1:01 left on a two-yard run by Dane Dunn to secure a 35-28 victory, allowing the Trailblazers (9-0, 4-0) to clinch at least a share of the Mission League championship. Serra is 6-3 and 3-1.

“We found a way to win,” Sierra Canyon coach Jon Ellinghouse told his team.

Except if the Trailblazers have aspirations of competing for a Southern Section Division 1 championship against the likes of St. John Bosco and Mater Dei, this game raised serious questions about whether they have made the needed progress to be competitive.

For one, Serra receiver Zacharyus Williams could not be contained against a secondary that is loaded with future college athletes. He made seven catches for 99 yards, including a six-yard touchdown with 8:37 left that tied the score.

“He’s been amazing,” Serra coach Scott Altenberg said. “We didn’t think they could cover him. We probably should have thrown it to him every time.”

After Williams’ score, Sierra Canyon had the ball for more than seven minutes with the strangest of drives to win the game. Twice receiver Kwazi Gilmer was called for 15-yard facemask penalties. Another receiver, Xavier Jordan, also picked up a facemask penalty. And yet, Serra bailed both out with its personal foul on the kicker.

“We kind of ran out of bullets at the end,” Altenberg said.

Marquis Gallegos of Sierra Canyon makes game-ending interception to preserve his team's 35-28 win over Serra.

Marquis Gallegos of Sierra Canyon makes game-ending interception to preserve his team’s 35-28 win over Serra.

(Craig Weston)

Serra quarterback Jimmy Butler marched the Cavaliers to the Sierra Canyon 40 in the final minute. On fourth down, he was intercepted by Marquis Gallegos as time expired and the Trailblazers could breathe a sigh of relief.

“We’re going to use this game as a lesson,” said Gilmer, who made a spectacular touchdown catch in the first half.

The first half featured athleticism at its highest level, with teenagers making plays usually seen on Saturdays or Sundays, resulting in a 21-21 tie at halftime.

Sierra Canyon, which rarely trailed while winning its first eight games, found itself down 14-0 less than two minutes in. Serra quickly scored on its opening drive, with Camron Harris-Willcot showing speed en route to a 45-yard touchdown run. Then Tre’ Harrison returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown.

The shock of giving up two touchdowns so early in a league title decider forced the Trailblazers to wake up fast. The defense slowed the Cavaliers, letting the offense respond. Dunn scored on a one-yard, fourth-down run and quarterback Wyatt Becker connected with Gilmer for a 35-yard touchdown to tie the score.

Butler came through with a 12-yard touchdown run in the second quarter for a 21-14 Serra lead. Then the best play of the night was a 21-yard touchdown catch by Cole Crawford for Sierra Canyon. Becker was hit while releasing the ball. It floated high toward the back of the end zone. Crawford caught it looking to his right while falling down as two Serra defenders failed to jar the ball loose.

Becker passed for 176 yards and two touchdowns and scored on a six-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to put Sierra Canyon on top 28-21. Terrell Cooks gave the Trailblazers a boost in the second half with his running.

Now Sierra Canyon will try to close out an unbeaten regular season with a finale against Chaminade, the team for which several Sierra Canyon players used to play.

“It’s all love, but on the field, it’s war,” said Gilmer, a former Eagle.

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