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Tigers Outgun The Hunters PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 06 December 2012 02:21

San Fernando Hits Canoga Park Early And Often With Deep Passes To Win City D-II Championship, 42-35

DARRYL WASHBURN

We Are The Champions -- The victorious San Fernando Tigers celebrate their win over Canoga Park in the City Section Division II title game at East Los Angeles College.

The past is now the past. No longer will San Fernando High football be wistfully thought about in terms of 1974 and 1975, the last years the Tigers won a championship.

All that changed when San Fernando bested Canoga Park, 42-35, to win the Los Angeles City Section Division II title at East Los Angeles College.

As the final seconds of the Dec. 1 game clock ticked off, ending 37 years of frustration, the players melted into a black-and-gold mob scene and a roar rose from the throats of Tiger fans in the stands.

DARRYL WASHBURN

Eyes On The Prize -- Tigers quarter Cris Solano looks downfield before throwing one of his 22 passes in the Dec. 1 game. Solano, a junior, had 15 completions for 320 yards and three touchdowns against Canoga Park.

"I had a feeling we were going to make it to the playoffs. But I never thought I'd be in the championship," said senior running back Daemon Thompson, before being swallowed up in another group of joyous teammates. "I can't even speak right now, I'm so happy." Tigers quarterback Cristian Solano was also ecstatic.

"I still can't believe it; I'm in shock that we won this championship," he said. "But we made a statement tonight. And the sky's the limit for San Fernando High School."

Their postgame grins could not have been any wider than the one first-year coach Robert Garcia was wearing.

"Even last week they were saying we couldn't win (when they played top seed South East in the semifinals)," Garcia said. "Our fans backed us up then, just like today. Whatever team showed up, San Fernando went 4-0 in the playoffs; we pulled it out."

And San Fernando boosters everywhere felt a sense of joy from the accomplishment. "This is great," said former San Fernando High, USC and NFL football star Anthony Davis. "When you start talking about San Fernando football players, it was always a burden on the people that followed us.

Many people thought the program was shot and gone, that the talent wasn't coming. That football was not a priority. "But to win a championship, and I don't care what level it is, you have to have some real passion there. I take my hat off to them."

Finding The Edge

When football coaches study film to prepare for a game they're looking for more than an opponent's tendencies and matchups. They're also looking for epiphanies, those moments where they find the schemes or plays that should work to perfection – or at least to great success.

For San Fernando Coach Robert Garcia, while preparing for the game, that moment came in drips and drabs. He had been studying the Canoga Park defense all week to find that one ideal play that could get the Tigers past the Hunters. He could see flashes of the play in his mind, but not the whole thing.

It hit him on Friday, the day before the game. He woke up at 1 a.m., looked at film, looked at the team's playbook and saw the play he was dreaming about that he was sure would work. He went back to sleep at 4 a.m., arose again at 8 a.m., watched film again, and was convinced he was right.

The play – Trips Right/D- 1/Able Cross Post in Tigerspeak – was one San Fernando had not run against Canoga Park during the Valley Mission League game the teams played on Oct. 26. The key figure in the formation, wide receiver Charles Bell, also did not play in that game, so his level of speed was unknown to the Hunters.

But did it work?

Absolutely, to the tune of a 60-yard touchdown pass near the end of the first quarter, which got the Tigers (12-2) rolling toward the school's first football championship (and sixth overall) in 37 years.

"I thought (Canoga Park) might be vulnerable to the long pass after playing 'run' teams (Van Nuys and Los Angeles Jefferson) the past two weeks," Garcia said. "And I thought our skill players are better." He was also counting on Solano to continue playing at the high level he had been at in 2012. "I told Cris, 'if you want to be one of the top players in the City, you have to have your best game in a championship game.'"

Solano, a junior, took the advice to heart. He lit up the Hunters defense for 320 passing yards and three touchdowns, completing 15 of his 22 attempts. All three touchdowns came on long throws – two to Bell (60 and 47 yards), and one to Jose Camargo (for 66 yards). He would also run for two touchdowns.

Solano also willingly took his lumps when the Canoga Park defense got past his blockers. He was sacked four times – Hunters' linebacker Hector Garcia had a hand in all four – and harassed at other times. But he tried to give his receivers every chance to get open, especially in the slower developing plays.

"We thought our receivers would be open all over the field because they were sending allout blitzes," Solano said. "I just had to let the ball go because they were so wide open. "I took sacks because I was trying not to force the ball and get interceptions. I'm trying to play smart and lead my team to touchdown after touchdown. Sometimes I had to wait a little longer for the guys to get open, but they succeeded in getting open."

Early Nerves

The Tigers had two golden opportunities to score early, with the first of two interceptions against Canoga Park quarterback Alex Dion and a recovered fumble. Both times San Fernando had the ball deep in Canoga Park territory, but San Fernando could not convert either chance.

"It was nerves," Tigers offensive lineman Robert De La Mora said afterward. "We weren't used to this (atmosphere) and there were a lot of butterflies in the stomachs. But our offensive line coaches told us to get a push and give the quarterback time to make plays, because he was getting rushed."

When San Fernando came out for its third possession, the ball on Tigers' 40-yard line, Garcia decided it was time to call the play. Originally it would be a screen pass to one of the three receivers lined up on the right. But when Garcia saw the Hunters' defense, he signaled to Solano to go long.

"Bell is our 'Able' receiver, meaning he can do any route we want depending on what the defense is giving us," Garcia said.

The junior wide receiver broke quickly from the line of scrimmage, and got a step on his defender. Solano unleashed a perfect throw, the ball falling out of the December afternoon sky and into Bell's hands as he was running in full stride. He didn't stop until he reached the end zone.

San Fernando had a 7-0 lead and relaxed. Canoga Park was stunned. Even though Dion tied the game on a 57-yard pass to Khyree Morgan on Canoga Park's next possession, the Tigers had found a weak spot they would repeatedly exploit, because the deep ball was consistently available. "We thought we could 'man' them and run with them," Canoga Park Coach Ivan Moreno said. "But when they would shake free, you saw breakdowns in our coverages where they got away. "At times we were successful with pressure. But what was surprising was the way [Solano] eluded some pressure, and how he was the catalyst for their team."

Opening A Big Lead

San Fernando broke the game open with three touchdowns in the second quarter – a 15-yard run by Solano, a 12- yard run by Daemon Thompson and the 47-yard pass to Bell – to lead 28-7 at halftime. They took the opening second half kickoff to their 27, then covered 72 yards in nine plays, the last eight yards on a Solano run for his second touchdown, and were cruising. The big deficit forced Canoga Park (9-5) to stop running and throwing, and just throw. In reality it wasn't that hard a decision; the running game was already shut down by the Tigers defense, which did an excellent job most of the day tackling the Hunters' Morgan and Semaj Miller, and not let them create space so their speed could create havoc. As a team, Canoga Park finished with 61 rushing yards on 25 carries.

Dion did his best to rally the Hunters through the air; and he came close to doing it. With the score at 42-14 in the fourth quarter, following Solano's final touchdown pass to Camargo, Dion cranked up his arm and threw almost every time the Hunters had the ball over the game's final 9:32.

He got his team into the end zone three times – an 18-yard touchdown pass to Josh Rivas, a 42-yard pass to Jeremie Ruelle, and a last gasp 50-yard catch-and-run to Rivas with 1:15 remaining after the Tigers started substituting reserve players to give them a taste of playing in a title game. Dion wound up with 416 passing yards and four touchdowns. But neither he nor Canoga Park could overcome their two interceptions and three lost fumbles.

Or Trips Right/D-1/Able Cross Post. "The turnovers did not help. That was most glaring," Moreno said. "You can't have that in championship game. I know our kids are better than that; I don't know if that was nerves or 'the bright lights.' But they didn't fold in second half. I was proud of them." And when San Fernando recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock, the celebration was on.

There may be another such celebration next year. Garcia will have 18 starters – nine each on offense and defense – returning next year (including Solano). There will also have plenty of talent to pluck from a junior varsity team that went 8-2. And, at age 27, the former UCLA Bruin has shown himself to be an area coach willing to grow his team and his program. "Coming in, I told everyone to believe the hype, that San Fernando's back. That's what kept me motivated. These kids worked so hard every day, in the weight room and the classroom. And it showed on the field. I'm happy for them, and I'm proud to be their coach."

San Fernando's victory against Canoga Park in the City Section Division II football final brought a burst of reaction on the Sun's Facebook page. Here is a sampling of the responses:

"My uncle Louie Mendoza played at SF in the 30's, unbeaten and unscored upon, 4 year letterman." – Joe Lozano

"On Fernando, on Fernando, fight on for your fame. Take the ball away from that team, touchdown every time!" V – Victoria Torrez-Ramirez "Rah Rah Rah! Mighty Tigers! What a great story." – Mercy Kaelin

"WE CAME. WE CONQUERED AND WE SCOOPED! :) (hey I don't make up the words, I just remember the cheer ~ hahaha) WE ARE THE TIGERS! THE MIGHTY MIGHTY TIGERS!!! CONGRATULATIONS SFHS!!!" – Christine Delgado

"Love it! Brings back MANY great memories of all the fun at the games with my best friends, Mercy & Emily!! Go Tigers!!!!" – Carolyn Rodriguez

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Last Updated on Thursday, 06 December 2012 20:09