Mission Viejo High School, which concluded its regular season with two humiliating losses, is an unlikely semifinalist in the Southern Section's Southern Conference playoffs after the Diablos upset Foothill, 14-0, Friday night on Northrup Field at Tustin.
A crowd of 1,800 saw the Diablos beat Foothill in the second round for the third consecutive year. It was Mission Viejo's second upset in the playoffs, coming on the heels of a 33-3 victory over Beverly Hills.
Could this be the same Mission Viejo team that was outscored, 79-28, by Capistrano Valley and El Toro to finish a distant third in the South Coast League?
"I've never had a team improve the way this one has during the course of a season," said Mission Viejo Coach Bill Crow, who seemed as surprised as anyone. "It's the second season and the players got excited."
So excited that they intercepted Foothill quarterback Chris Fergus three times in the fourth quarter, including a 95-yard return for a touchdown by defensive back Rick Angle with 6:38 remaining.
It was Angle's second interception return for a touchdown against Foothill the past two years, and Crow credited the senior for turning a tight ballgame around.
"Rick did the same thing last year, intercepting a pass and going all the way," he said. "We had a 7-0 lead in that game, too, and he turned the game around with the play. Unbelievable."
It was another disappointing loss for Foothill Coach Ted Mullen. The veteran coach has often said that the Knights' 16-13 loss to Mission Viejo two years ago "gnawed on me more than any loss in a long time."
This time, Foothill was never in the game. The Knights managed only 37 yards rushing until sophomore Johnny Mountain entered the game in the fourth quarter and added another 58 yards in 12 carries.
A couple of poor punts and two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties also hurt the Knights. Mission Viejo took advantage of a 15-yard punt to score its first touchdown, and a major penalty helped them sustain a drive that took precious time off the clock in the fourth quarter.
Diablo quarterback Tony Arnone, often erratic this season, was brilliant against Foothill. He completed 13 of 22 passes for 169 yards. Arnone's perfectly thrown pass to sophomore Eric Ekdahl was good for 29 yards and a touchdown with 1:43 left in the first half.
Ekdahl caught 4 passes for 68 yards, and teammate Danny Reed caught 6 for 82 yards as the Diablos repeatedly burned Foothill's secondary.
"It was a good, old-fashioned tail kicking," Mullen said. "They flat outplayed us."
No one could argue that point. The Diablos' defense, led by linebackers David Bancroft and Jeff Pease, put the pressure on Fergus all evening and limited the Knights' top runner, John Fischbeck, to 47 yards in 16 carries.
"Our defense was just super tonight," Crow said. "I thought the winning team would score two touchdowns, and I'm glad it was us.
"Offensively, we knew it would be tough to run against them, so we went to the play-action passes to keep them off balance, and our receivers ran a lot of comeback patterns. Arnone has really come a long way."
Arnone was benched after the third game of the season in favor of quarterback John Moses, but he has looked like a championship quarterback in the playoffs. Just ask Foothill.
Mission Viejo (7-5) will face another familiar opponent in the semifinals. The Diablos will meet top-seeded El Toro Friday night at Mission Viejo High. Crow was asked about the prospects of another upset.
"Hey, I'm just glad to be in the semis," he said. "With this team, you never know."