El Dorado High School made the big plays in Friday night's Empire League finale, but it was Esperanza that did the little things right, and details were what made the difference.
In an intensely played game witnessed by 3,000 at Bradford Stadium, the Aztecs kept control--of the ball for most of the first half and their emotions throughout--to score a 23-21 victory over El Dorado.
Esperanza outgained El Dorado on the ground, 223-42, but the Golden Hawks kept close with big plays. Kevin Schula threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to John Cribari on the game's first play and Eddie Keller returned a punt 53 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
The loss may have ended postseason hopes for the Golden Hawks (6-3-1, 1-3-1), who won their first five games this season. They needed a win to qualify for the Southern Conference playoffs.
Esperanza (6-3-1, 3-1-1) will be the league's No. 2 representative and Katella will go as the third-place team. El Dorado's remaining hope is for the wild-card berth.
But the Golden Hawks have only themselves to blame.
They were penalized four times for unsportsmanlike conduct, one of which led to an Esperanza touchdown, and another time for pass interference on a fourth-down play. That also resulted in an Aztec score.
The mistakes, including three interceptions, offset El Dorado's big plays.
After the Golden Hawks opened a 7-0 lead, Esperanza came back to drive 52 yards for the tying touchdown, 15 yards coming on an unsportsmanlike-conduct call and the final 21 on a pass from Jason Moler to Mike Kent.
Mike Finley, who rushed for 113 yards in 20 carries, gave the Aztecs the lead with a 16-yard touchdown run with 4:12 left in the first quarter.
An El Dorado pass interference penalty kept an Esperanza drive alive in the second quarter, and Moler made it a costly mistake by throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Doug Saunders with 5:05 left in the half.
Kevin Leon's 37-yard field goal with 2:13 left in the half gave the Aztecs a 23-7 lead.
El Dorado came back in the second half on Keller's punt return and a one-yard touchdown run by Chris Olsen. Olsen was held to a season-low 40 yards in 17 carries.