Huntington Beach quarterback Kai Ross, shown during a Nov. 23 Southwest… (Kevin Chang / HB Independent )
Five weeks ago Huntington Beach had a losing record and was all but out of the CIF playoffs. Now, it is a Southern Section champion for the first time.
Kai Ross threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns and returned two interceptions for scores in the fourth quarter as the Oilers won the Southwest Division title with a 42-28 victory over Newport Harbor on Saturday afternoon at Angel Stadium.
"This was a test of our season — we were the last team into the playoffs and now we've done something our school's never done," said Ross, who has orally committed to Montana, where he hopes to play both offense and defense. "We trusted what our coaches said, that if we finished the season strong there was a chance we'd get in because our league is so strong."
Huntington Beach (9-5) scored three touchdowns in a 45-second span in the middle of the fourth quarter to take control. Ross threw a 52-yard strike to Nolan Thompson to break a 21-21 tie with 6:26 left, then picked off a pass and broke seven tackles on his way to a 36-yard touchdown. On Newport Harbor's next offensive play, lineman Sean Mastro tipped a pass and Ross intercepted and returned it 26 yards to make it 42-21.
"The first one was a smash play and I sank off the hitch rout, their quarterback floated the ball and I came down with it," said Ross, whose brother Emmett led the Oilers to a CIF title in volleyball last spring and now plays at Lourdes University in Ohio. "On the second one the play sort of stopped and I thought there was a penalty, but all of a sudden the ball was in my hands."
Cole Norris completed 24 of 38 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns for the Sailors (8-6), who were seeking their fourth section title and first since 2005. Norris found Keaton Cabley in the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown to give Newport Harbor a 21-14 lead late in the third quarter, but the Oilers answered with Hunter Simmons' 11-yard reception from Ross.
Newport Harbor took a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Norris to Cory Stowell, but the Oilers pulled even just over a minute later on a 23-yard scoring pass from Ross to Maurice Barber, who had three catches for 129 yards.
Trevor Shaw dived over the goal line from one yard out on the first play of the second quarter to tie it, 7-7, after the Oilers had driven 92 yards in 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead on Travis Heer's one-yard run late in the first quarter.
Quest Truxton had nine catches for 105 yards and Cabley had five receptions for 46 yards for Newport Harbor, which got its final touchdown when Max Durante returned a blocked punt six yards with 1:53 left to produce the final margin.
Ross also ran for 90 yards in 11 carries. He finished the season with seven interceptions playing safety and cornerback.
Huntington Beach routed Newport Harbor, 40-14, in its Sunset League finale to earn an at-large playoff berth, then upset Empire League champion Yorba Linda, 31-14, Sea View League winner San Juan Hills, 42-12, and crosstown rival Edison (the Sunset League champion), 28-21, on its way to the final.
"We got a big play on third and a bunch that set up the go-ahead touchdown — that might've been the play of the game," Huntington Beach Coach Eric Lo said. "Then Kai gets the back-to-back interceptions and all of a sudden it's a huge lead."
The victory gave the Oilers their first football championship since winning the "B" Division in 1935.