Fri, Dec 13 2013 11:05 AM Posted By: Phillip Brents
In a game dictated by bruising defensive performances, the Sweetwater Red Devils came out one play better than their adversary in last Saturday’s San Diego Section Division IV championship game to capture the National City school’s first CIF football title in 29 years.
Alumni, staff, administrators, coaches and players on the Sweetwater sideline had to wipe away tears — and years of frustration — as the second-seeded Red Devils claimed a hard-earned 7-0 victory against the top-seeded Monte Vista Monarchs in a game played during intermittent rain showers at San Diego Mesa College.
The game-winning touchdown came on a trick play — a 15-yard halfback pass from Raven Middleton to fellow wingback Antonio Garcia with 2:58 left to play to break a scoreless deadlock between the teams.
The play not only shocked the Monarchs but sent shockwaves throughout the entire Sweetwater Nation as well. Monte Vista entered the game as a two touchdown favorite after previously blasting the Red Devils, 34-3, in a non-league game played Sept. 20 at Hilltop High School.
“Amazing job, unbelievable,” an emotional Sweetwater head coach Brian Hay said after the game while trying to search for the rights words to describe his team’s eighth consecutive win to close the season.
“It was an amazing experience for our players and coaches to be a part of, and an amazing experience for everyone in National City who has supported us all year,” Hay continued. “It’s an exciting feeling. It’s something you never forget.”
Certainly, the ending to Saturday’s championship title will not be forgotten any time soon.
The Devils had come the closest to scoring in the smash-mouth-style contest after missing a 38-yard field goal attempt in the first half.
The kick wasn’t even close, floating high and dying at the goal line.
The deciding play also was decided on a floater into the end zone, but this time it was on target.
It was not necessarily a miracle finish but certainly a finish worthy of a championship game victory at any level.
On the game-winning drive, it appeared Sweetwater players simply had decided that enough was enough, and they were going to finish what they had started back in training camp in August — to win a section championship.
With zeroes flashing across the scoreboard, the Red Devils got the ball back with 8:15 to play. They would have one last chance to make a statement — one last drive — and it had to count.
The SuHi double-wing attack that had been so successful chewing up yards — and valuable time — during the second half of the season finally kicked into gear after sputtering for most of the game due to self-inflicted wounds: penalties.
Starting at their own 39-yard line, the Devils finally got the big play they had been looking for all game when Middleton, who had been held to just 17 yards in the first half, broke through the Monte Vista defense for a 20-yard gain to midfield. Later, facing third-and-one, Middleton crunched the ball to the Monarch 25 and a subsequent pitch to Garcia suddenly positioned the ball at the 18-yard line.
With time winding down and Sweetwater methodically moving forward, it only seemed a matter of time before the Red Devils would be poised at the goal line, ready perhaps for a plunge into the end zone with just seconds remaining, leaving the Monarchs with no time to counter.
But that’s not happened.
A defensive stand by Monte Vista ensued, and the Devils found themselves staring at third-and-inches from the 15-yard line.
The National City team had come so far after last advancing to the CIF finals in 1984, and the Devils were so close now, but would it be close enough.
Would a field goal win it?
Or would the Devils turn the ball over on downs in the shadow of the goalposts?
It is ironic that for a team that had based its success almost solely on the running game that a pass play would prove the difference in winning a CIF championship title.
On the fateful play, Middleton raced with the ball to the sideline and it appeared at first that Sweetwater was going to attempt a run around end to pick up the first down. But Middleton abruptly stopped behind the line of scrimmage — short of the first down — and crossed everyone up by lobbing a halfback option pass into the end zone.
Up went the somewhat diminutive Garcia along with a Monte Vista defender. The Monarch defender tipped the ball but Garcia, with arms outstretched, came down with it before landing on his side in the end zone. He promptly got up and waved the ball at the official.
Touchdown Red Devils.
Monte Vista players and coaches stood in utter shock. The play had taken everyone by surprise.
It turned out the Devils had intended to use the trick play at some point in the game. It proved to be the right call at the right time.
“It was a designed play, we were waiting for the right moment to call it,” Garcia later said. “He (Middleton) threw it to me in the corner of the end zone. The safety tipped it but I managed to catch it.”
The key to the play was Middleton drawing a pair of Monarch defenders to him, leaving Garcia in one-on-one coverage.
“When I saw a couple of their cornerbacks come up, I knew he (Garcia) would be open,” Middleton said of the crucial timing element needed to pull off the trick play.
Hay credited offensive coach Wes Charles with the decisive call.
“They play a similar style to us, smash-mouth football, and we knew it was going to be a knock-down, drag-out affair,” Hay noted. “We wore them down, we tired them out.”
The timing was indeed perfect.
The touchdown was Garcia’s team-leading 13th of the season — and third as a receiver. He called it “the best play of my life.”
“It was a tight game — one touchdown was going to win it,” Garcia said. “Monte Vista is a powerful team. We played them before and we got destroyed. But we grew together as a family because of that loss. It made us a better team.”
The superior team in the rematch, as it turned out.
After Julio Roman’s extra-point kick fluttered through the uprights, the Devils (9-4) had a very hard-earned 7-0 lead to show for their efforts.
But the game was not over.
Monte Vista (7-6) received the ball on a short kickoff by Sweetwater, starting in dangerous field position at its own 41-yard line with plenty of time to mount a potential game-tying touchdown drive.
But the SuHi defense came up huge again, and left its mark on the game one last time. The Monarchs’ season ended in inglorious fashion as they fumbled on the next play, with the Devils recovering the ball at the Monte Vista 40-yard line with 2:45 left.
Again, Sweetwater’s ball-control offense went to work, and executed to perfection.
Facing fourth-and-three with 2:23 to go, Middleton punched the ball through for a first down to the Monarch 29, and from there, all that was left to do was for SuHi quarterback Christian Amon to kneel in victory formation.
As the clock ticked down to zeroes, Sweetwater players and coaches — and fans — began to celebrate deliriously.
The Red Devils were San Diego Section Division IV champions!
San Diego Section commissioner Jerry Schniepp said he felt the competitive format divisions “had some great matchups and not just in the finals.”
“In the new Open Division, we saw a game for the ages in the semifinal matchup between Oceanside and Eastlake,” he said. “There were more upsets than we’re used to with two different No. 8 seeds beating No. 1 seeds.
“Sweetwater High, which won eight straight games to win the Division IV championship, wrote a new chapter in the school’s great history. And Christian High’s three playoff wins against large schools in Division III demonstrated that small schools can compete and win championships against larger enrollment schools with similar competitive histories.”
The two Division IV finalists were about as evenly matched as could be expected in a championship game. Sweetwater finished the title contest with eight first downs and 201 yards in net offensive yards while Monte Vista collected seven first downs and 178 net yards.
The evenness of the match-up between top-seeded teams was not surprising.
The game pitted teams with similar offensive schemes revolving almost entirely around the running game — Sweetwater employing the double-wing offense and Monte Vista utilizing the wing-T offense.
The Monarchs did not attempt a pass, rushing for 178 yards on 37 attempts while garnering seven first downs. The Red Devils did not attempt a pass in the game until the game-winning trick play. Sweetwater finished the game with 188 rushing yards on 46 attempts.
Despite the emphasis on the ground game, rushing yards came at a premium with both defenses shutting down big plays and promising drives ending in turnovers.
The teams combined for 10 fumbles on the wet, slippery field.
Garcia had the bulk of carries, rushing 15 times for 85 yards, while Middleton had seven carries for 36 yards on seven rushing attempts. Angel Reyes had 10 carries for 32 yards while Amon had eight carries for 17 yards.
Middleton had been quiet for most of the game until picking up the tempo in the final quarter.
Garcia led all players in the game with 100 total yards, including the game-winning touchdown reception.
Jemeil Jackson led Monte Vista with 64 yards on 17 carries while quarterback Thomas Walker had five carries for 54 yards. Walker ripped off a huge 59-yard gainer in the first quarter but the drive eventually stalled at the SuHi 20-yard line on downs.
The Devils defense rose to the occasion when pressed the most, especially in the critical late stages of the game. The Monarchs amassed 147 rushing yards in the first half but could only muster 31 yards in the second half.
“Our offense stepped up at the end,” Middleton said. “We wanted to bring it home.”
It was a long wait since 1984, but they did, finally.
Monte Vista’s last appearance in a division title contest was in 2003 when the Monarchs defeated Grossmont Conference rival Helix, 20-3, to win the Division II championship.
Both the Monarchs and Red Devils had been among the section’s longest under-performing teams over the past decade, with both teams having accumulated 60 or more losses during that span.
Garcia finished the season with 1,335 rushing yards on 143 carries to pace Sweetwater while Reyes totaled 1,136 rushing yards on 137 carries. As a team, the Red Devils averaged 343.9 rushing yards per game with 36 rushing touchdowns and an average of 7.53 yards per carry.
James Zarate keyed Sweetwater’s defense with 74 tackles, followed by Jose Lopez with 66 tackles and Middleton with 62 tackles. Middleton and Lopez paced the team with five sacks each while Jaylon Davis had four interceptions and Lopez had four fumble recoveries.
© 2009 The Star-News