Whoever plays Long Beach Poly High on Saturday in a state bowl game might want to let the Jackrabbits take a brief second-half lead.
Putting Poly in a late hole only seems to energize the Jackrabbits, as Rancho Santa Margarita Tesoro learned Saturday night at Angel Stadium during a 20-17 loss in the Pac-5 Division championship game.
Top-seeded Poly trailed in three of its four playoff games and needed fourth-quarter scores to pull out victories in all four rounds. But the Jackrabbits never faced as precarious a situation as they did against third-seeded Tesoro, when they trailed, 17-7, with 9 minutes 40 seconds remaining.
Damon Smith hauled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Morgan Fennell on fourth down to make it 17-13 midway through the fourth quarter.
Then, shortly after the Jackrabbits got the ball back, Melvin Richardson broke two tackles and skirted the sideline during a 60-yard touchdown run that pushed Poly ahead, 20-17, with 2:56 left.
"I didn't want to go home," Richardson said. "I wanted to be state champions. I was the man to get the job done."
Preston King returned the ensuing kickoff to Tesoro's 43-yard line, but the Titans gained only one yard in four plays. Poly lineman Iuta Tepa hit quarterback Robbie Picazo on fourth down, forcing an incompletion and all but clinching Poly's 18th Southern Section title.
The Jackrabbits can bill themselves as the comeback kids, having outscored their opponents, 65-27, in the second half in the playoffs.
"I feel like crying right now," Poly Coach Raul Lara said. "I love these guys. You win championships by running the ball and playing great defense."
The 10 California Interscholastic Federation section commissioners must decide today whether Poly (14-0) merits selection as the Southern California representative in the state Open Division bowl game over Corona Centennial (14-0), which won the Inland Division title Friday. Whichever team isn't chosen will be placed in the state Division I bowl game.
Tesoro receiver Brett Gudim had given the Titans (13-1) a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter when he outran the Poly secondary and hauled in a 52-yard touchdown pass from Picazo. Tesoro made it 17-7 on Ian Sellar's 31-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Poly's vaunted rushing attack, which had been held to 15 yards in 15 first-half carries, finally got going on the Jackrabbits' first drive of the third quarter. Fennell had a 14-yard scramble, running back Cory Westbrook had an 11-yard run and Richardson ran for a 22-yard touchdown that pulled the Jackrabbits into a 7-7 tie.
Tesoro started its first three drives in Poly territory, the first two following long punt returns by King. But the Titans couldn't capitalize until their third possession, when some trickery early in the second quarter set up their first score.
Picazo pitched the ball to King and then went out for a pass that he tipped to himself with one hand for a dazzling catch at the Jackrabbits' one-yard line, setting up fourth and goal. Fullback Issac Tago then bulled ahead for the touchdown, giving Tesoro a 7-0 lead.
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Lancaster Paraclete 21,
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St. Margaret's 17,
Twentynine Palms 3
Arcadia Rio Hondo Prep 13,
Riverside Christian 6