The Castle Park High School football team, wracked by an off-field incident that led to the varsity team forfeiting a non-league game to Mar Vista, ended its season on an up note after claiming a thrilling 21-20 Metro-Pacific League victory over the host Montgomery Aztecs in the teams’ annual rivalry game, the aptly-named Warrior Bowl, on Nov. 10.
“It was a great win for our seniors and a great way to end the season with all the stuff that’s been going on,” said a stoked Hans Graham, the CPHS head coach. “I’m so proud of our kids. For us, it was like winning the Super Bowl.”
The Warrior Bowl II, which went to the Aztecs last year in the game’s unveiling at Castle Park, ended in dramatic fashion. The Trojans, mired in a six-game losing streak, entered the game 1-8 on the season. Graham’s team could easily have folded its tent and made plans for next season. But that didn’t happen.
The visitors from Troy, despite playing with a short bench, came to win — or, at least, give it their best shot.
At 5-4 overall, the hosts, meanwhile, were playing not only for favorable playoff seeding position but also a shot at a potential league tri-championship.
The teams battled to a 14-all standoff to heighten the on-field drama.
The game’s ending couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly.
With less than five minutes remaining, Fernando Hernandez intercepted a pass for the Trojans and returned it 25 yards into Montgomery territory. Castle Park promptly capitalized on the turnover as quarterback Juan Luna connected with Manny Salcedo on a short scoring pass.
The PAT conversion by Eduardo Soto pushed the visitors ahead 21-14.
“With our varsity and junior varsity playing together, we went back to our play book at the start of the season and got back to basics, and it worked for us,” Graham said.
The hosts took their own cue and marched down the field to score a matching touchdown with one minute to play. The Aztecs elected to go for the win rather than settle for a tie by setting up in the two-point conversion formation.
In a finish that left spectators’ hearts in their throats, CP’s Nicolas Rascon and Soto tackled MOH star running back Charles Williams, who had rushed for 136 yards and scored two touchdowns in the game, short of the goal line.
“I give Montgomery credit for going for the win,” Graham said. “They ran something that had worked for them all game long and we finally stopped it for once.”
The win raised the Trojans’ record to 2-8 overall, 1-2 in league play. As expected, Castle Park did not receive an invitation to the San Diego Section’s Division IV playoffs.
Montgomery dropped to 5-5 on the season, 1-2 in league. The scenario existed that if Sweetwater had defeated Mater Dei Catholic and Montgomery had defeated Castle Park, that a three-way tie for the Metro-Pacific title would have ensued.
The Aztecs’ loss to the Trojans and the Red Devils’ loss to the visiting Crusaders eliminated that possibility, however.
Mater Dei ended the season as the new Metro-Pacific champion with a 3-0 league mark. Ironically, there was a three-way tie for second place in the league standings between Montgomery, Castle Park and Sweetwater.
The Aztecs and Crusaders both received playoff invitations.
Mater Dei (8-2 overall) enters Friday’s Division IV opening round with a home game against Palo Verde Valley (7-3) as the No. 7 seed.
Montgomery received the No. 10 seed in the Division III field and will play at seventh-seeded Mar Vista on Friday.
The Aztecs racked up 494 offensive yards in the loss to Castle Park.
Montgomery quarterback Harley Armada completed nine of 15 passes for 204 yards while Williams tacked on a halfback option pass for 20 more yards. The hosts rolled up 270 rushing yards. Aust’n Morga added 52 yards on two carries while Armada gained 44 yards on three carries.
Morga broke off one 45-yard ground gainer and also hauled in a 52-yard pass to excite the home fans.
Jaime Arredondo had two catches for 85 yards, including one 70-yard down field jaunt. Morga had two catches for 83 yards.
Joel Castro, who had two catches for 32 yards, scored the Aztecs’ other touchdown.
CP’s Luna had six completions in 12 attempts for 78 yards while the Trojans combined for 151 rushing yards.
Hector Guillen rushed 21 times for 54 yards while Aaron Leon had five rushes for 41 yards and Daniel Hernandez rushed five times for 29 yards.
David Anderson had two catches for 42 yards.
Anderson, Salcedo and Guillen each scored touchdowns in the game.
The match-up featured its share of dramatic moments on defense. The Trojans had three fumble recoveries besides Hernandez’s interception. Mario Perez had two recoveries while Robert Stretch had one.