May 18, 2024

Scoring first is something every team wants to do, but it could have been especially critical in Friday night’s City Section Open Division semifinal between Garfield and Gardena in East Los Angeles.

On a sloppy field that got torn up more with every snap, Garfield quarterback Damian Cabrera found receiver Jayden Barnes for a 45-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, and the Bulldogs were on their way to a 42-6 victory. The rain never came, but the home team brought a storm of its own.

Damian Cornejo rushed for more than 150 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 26 rushing scores, and no carry was bigger than his three-yard plunge on fourth down from the three-yard line that extended the lead to 14-6 midway through the second quarter.

Cornejo had no trouble gaining traction on the half-dirt, half-grass field he practices on every day. He added a two-yard touchdown run before halftime and a one-yard score that clinched the win late in the third quarter.

Garfield wide receiver Dominic Vasquez makes a catch in front of Gardena linebacker Zakye Marcus.

Garfield wide receiver Dominic Vasquez makes a catch in front of Gardena linebacker Zakye Marcus in the City Section Open Division semifinals.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Dominic Vasquez picked off his sixth pass of the season and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown to make it 29-6 less than 30 seconds after Joseph Regalado kicked a 37-yard field goal. Isaak Naranjo and Paul Ramos also had interceptions for Garfield.

The second-seeded Bulldogs (11-1) will meet top-seeded Birmingham (10-2) for the championship Nov. 25 at 6 p.m. at Valley College. Birmingham routed No. 4 Carson 35-6 in Friday’s other semifinal for its 41st straight victory over a section opponent, a streak dating to 2017 and a win shy of the City record set by Wilson from 1975 to 1978.

Garfield coach Lorenzo Hernandez, now in his 23rd season, would like to add an upper-division title to his résumé. Friday’s game might have been the last on the field as construction is set to begin on a new stadium in January.

“We’re ready,” said Hernandez, whose players earned the opportunity to atone for their 49-13 drubbing at the hands of the Patriots in last year’s final. “The kids got a taste of what it’s like to play a great team like Birmingham last year. They’ve dominated the City for several years so it’ll be a big challenge.”

Robert Sanchez carried three defenders with him across the goal line for Garfield’s last touchdown, his 12th of the season, with 1:27 left in the fourth quarter. Gardena linebacker Andrew Aldana suffered an upper-back contusion on the play and after a 20-minute delay was transported to the hospital by ambulance. Both coaches agreed to end the game at that point, before the extra point was attempted.

“In order to execute we knew we had to win the battle up front,” Hernandez added. “We knew they were expecting us to run so we did something unorthodox by throwing on the first play, thinking we might catch them off guard and we did.”

Garfield wide receiver Paul Ramos runs after making a catch against Gardena in the City Section Open Division semifinals.

Garfield wide receiver Paul Ramos runs after making a catch against Gardena in the City Section Open Division semifinals.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

The glass slipper did not fit at the end of a Cinderella story for Gardena, making its first appearance in the Open Division on the heels of its first league title since 1974.

After his team held Palisades to 10 points in the quarterfinals, coach Monty Gilbreath reaffirmed his belief that the Panthers have the best defense in the City, giving up only seven points per game and posting four shutouts. However, Garfield’s unit proved superior, giving up only a 14-yard scoring run by Keyshawn Hood that pulled the Panthers (10-2) within 7-6 late in the first quarter.

“I heard all week about how good their defense was but our mentality was to show them who’s the better, more physical team,” Cornejo said. “We’ve won 11 in a row and we’re clicking on all cylinders, but we need to bring the same intensity next week. Last year, Birmingham was just bigger than us and it showed, but we hit the weight room in the summer and got a lot stronger.”

Garfield captured the 2A title in 1981 under Dick Loya and the Division II title in 2007 under Hernandez.

In the postgame handshake line, Gilbreath had a message for the Bulldogs: “Go win it!”

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