The demise of Ventura College's football season is similar to the shotgun blast that hit John Johnson in three places below the knees last Thursday evening.
Sudden, unexpected, and painful.
Ventura was ranked sixth in the state with a 7-0 record three weeks ago when it was smitten by a streak of injuries and bad luck. Last week, the misfortune continued. Johnson was injured in a drive-by shooting and Ferando Green--Johnson's replacement--missed three days of practice in order to attend his grandmother's funeral in Ohio.
Therefore, an already-struggling Ventura team limped into Larrabee Stadium and fell to Moorpark, 28-0, its second consecutive loss.
Moorpark (8-1 overall, 7-1 in Western State Conference play), ranked seventh in the state and fifth in Southern California, will travel to L. A. Southwest (7-1-1, 6-1-1) to decide the WSC Northern Division championship at 1 p.m. Saturday. Moorpark is 4-0 in division play and Southwest, ranked 10th in the state and sixth in the Southland, is 3-1.
Ventura, meanwhile, is headed in the opposite direction. The Pirates (7-2, 6-2) have slipped to 19th in the state poll and are scrambling for a bowl bid.
"We've had a lot happen to us," Coach Phil Passno said.
Johnson, a freshman tailback from Channel Islands High, was expected to be Ventura's main man against the Raiders. But he was sidelined in the wake of Thursday's shooting. As he stood outside a pizza restaurant at a Moorpark shopping center, a car drove past and an occupant fired a shotgun into a crowd, injuring five people.
"I was just talking to some friends when I got hit and ran inside," Johnson said.
That would be Johnson's last dash of the season. Seven pellets penetrated his legs, leaving him in a wheelchair and destroying Ventura's offensive strategy. "We had done a lot of work to get John Johnson ready to play that game," Passno said. "We had built our game plan around him."
For good reason. Johnson is 5-foot-10, 210 pounds and has exceptional speed. Despite being slowed by a thigh bruise the previous two weeks, he had rushed for 553 yards this season.
"We would have been hard to stop with John," Passno said. "It's like taking Freddie Bradley out of Moorpark's offense. How good are they without him?"
Bradley, who had 118 yards and three touchdowns against Ventura, has rushed for 1,113 yards in 168 carries.
Green left for Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on Wednesday and did not return to Ventura until Saturday afternoon. Ventura's coaching staff called an emergency practice in an attempt to fit Green into Johnson's role but did not have enough time and was forced to use a simple attack that Moorpark stuffed in its back pocket.
"Losing John that late in the week just killed us," Passno said.
Quarterback Todd Paffhausen, who had thrown just one interception in 125 attempts this season, was slowed by a strained stomach muscle and threw three interceptions. Ryan Rapoza, his right hand in a cast to protect a broken little finger, failed to catch a game-tying touchdown pass in the first half. And cornerback Rico Jones, also injured in the shooting, was on crutches.
"We just weren't able to put our best foot forward," Passno said.
The bizarre twist to Ventura's storybook season has turned bowl-bid talk to whispers and put the Pirates in a must-win situation at Glendale (4-4-1, 4-3-1) on Saturday.
Despite the misfortunes, Ventura is optimistic of an 8-2 season and a bowl bid.
"If you would have told me before the season that we would have been 8-2 this year, I would have said you're crazy," Passno said. "I would have liked to have been 10-0, but that isn't going to happen."
Moorpark can assure itself of a bowl bid with a win over Southwest. But the Raiders must first discover a way to stop a large, physical Southwest team that has the Craig Manigo-to-Ansel Littlejohn connection.
Manigo has thrown for 1,803 yards and 19 touchdowns. Littlejohn has caught 41 passes for 703 yards and 11 touchdowns.