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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
In the first half of Gahr High’s pivotal San Gabriel Valley League football game with Warren High, the host Gladiators missed two extra points and failed on a two-point conversion. Lucky for the Gladiators those points didn’t come back to haunt them in the end.
Down by 10 points with 8:34 remaining in the game, Gahr chewed up a lot of time to score one touchdown, then recovered a key onside kick that led to the game-winning score as the Gladiators came back for a 46-42 victory at Hanford Rants Stadium last Friday night. The 88 combined points between Gahr and Warren are the most in over 20 seasons when they have faced each other and there were six lead changes throughout the game. In addition, both teams combined for over 1,000 yards on offense.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game like that,” said Gahr head coach Greg Marshall. “We had them put away a couple of times and we gave them a couple of easy scores. We knew they were going to throw it, but we just couldn’t play good pass defense tonight. It was horrible.”
The Gladiators (7-1 overall, 3-0 in league) were paced by junior running back Micah Bernard on offense and senior free safety Aaron Hawk on defense. In between, there were several momentum swings by both teams, the last one coming after the Bears had extended their lead to 42-32. Beginning at its own 20-yard line following a penalty, Gahr engineered a 17-play drive that consumed nearly five and a half minutes. The Gladiators converted on fourth and two from their own 34-yard line when Bernard picked up 13 yards. The drive ended on a three-yard score from senior running back Ugonna Olumba.
“We were trying to throw it and I just said, ‘let’s just run it’,” Marshall said. “Luckily, we got that first down [on fourth and two] and went back to our run game. Once that happened, the momentum swung.”
Gahr attempted an onside kick which would be successful when junior Evan Smith recovered a fumble when the Bears misplayed it. On the very next play, Bernard busted loose for a 58-yard touchdown run with 2:55 left in the game.
“I didn’t think at all it was going to be this type of game,” Bernard said. “Honestly, I was expecting a blowout. But, I’m glad that knowing [it was] a close game and coming out on the winning side, it feels great going into the next week. We just have to take this momentum and take it to Paramount.”
But the game was still in doubt because Warren managed to get the ball to the Gahr 38-yard line. However, the final pass that Chris Venegas would throw was intercepted by Hawk at the 21-yard line with 76 seconds left to play. It was Hawk’s third pick of the contest and gave the Gladiators eight for the season.
Hawk’s first interception, which was at the five-yard line, came on Warren’s first possession of the game and eventually led to the first score of the game, a one-yard run from Bernard with 4:39 remaining in the opening stanza. After the Bears jumped ahead 7-6, Hawk picked off Venegas six plays into the second quarter. On the next play, Bernard scored on an 89-yard run two and a half minutes into the second quarter.
“Senior leadership who’s in charge of the secondary,” Marshall described Hawk. “Thank goodness they kept going at him. You can’t be prouder of the guy because our coaches were saying he should have had four or five [interceptions].”
“I felt very happy,” Bernard said of Hawk. “I knew he was capable of this and just to see it happen live, I felt happy. He’s like a big brother for me; he’s a real big brother to me. He’s always keeping me up and we’re always talking. Just to see him have his moments and me have mine and us collaborating, it just feels great.”
Warren regained the lead on its next possession, a 14-yard run from Justin Mendoza. But the high-scoring affair kept moving on as senior quarterback E.J. Gonzalez tossed a 28-yard scoring strike to senior wide receiver Jake Frechette. Following a missed two-point conversion, the Gladiators had an 18-14 lead with 3:09 left in the half. They would extend their lead 35 seconds later after senior linebacker Lajuan Miller returned a fumble 29 yards to the house.
However, the Bears scored again shortly before halftime on a 20-yard pass play from Venegas to Desmond Carnes. Venegas, who entered the game with over 1,400 yards passing and 17 touchdowns opposite just one interception, finished the game 26 of 44 for 412 yards and five touchdowns, throwing to just four receivers.
“We thought we had the routes down,” Marshall said. “We just didn’t execute the coverage. We couldn’t get to [Venegas]. He’s good. We had a couple of interceptions right in our hands and dropped [the ball]. When you get those opportunities for interceptions…that changes the whole dynamics of throwing the football because we knew they couldn’t run it against us. We played just good enough to win, but it was ugly.”
Bernard was “limited” to 131 yards on a dozen carries in the half and despite having the wind knocked out of him several times in the game, he refused to stay on the sidelines for an extended amount of time. Four plays into the second quarter, he rumbled for a 71-yard touchdown run. Then following a three and out by the defense, Bernard touched the ball seven times in the first 11 plays of Gahr’s next drive. But after a fumble, he left the game again with another injury, only to return less than a minute later after the Bears cut into Gahr’s lead, 32-28. In all, Bernard picked up 402 yards on 32 carries and has now scored a touchdown in every game, 18 for the season, with eight being at least 50 yards.
“Is that a national record,” Marshall jokingly questioned of his yardage amount. “Has someone else done that? I didn’t see that [coming]. And here’s the deal, it was all meaningful too. It wasn’t like we were just pumping him the ball and running it up. He won the game for us, literally.”
“I have a good training staff here and they got me back [on the field],” Bernard said. “I was just tired. I was tired, I needed a break and they got me my energy. I just came back, and I knew I was ready. Coach gave me the ball [and] I put it on my back. First, it was the line and then after that, I put it on my back and I got through.”
Senior linebacker Marquise Alexander led the Gahr defense with four tackles while five other players all had three tackles a piece. The Gladiators also yielded 56 yards on the ground. Gahr, which is ranked fifth in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division 10 poll, has won five of the last seven meetings with the Bears and six of the last 16. Next up for the Gladiators is a road meeting with Paramount High tonight, a team it has lost to six consecutive times. The Pirates are the second-ranked team in Division 5. One more Gahr win would match the total it had last season as the team has also won three league games for the second straight season.
“We have to play pass defense,” Marshall said. “Unlike a normal Paramount football team, they throw the football. So, we have to work on our pass defense and make sure that the run defense is still solid. I think we have a really good chance to win, I really do.”
“It sends a big statement,” Bernard said of the win over Warren. “We want this ‘W’ against Paramount. We want to win league. So, this is a big statement saying we’re coming to play heavy. We’re not playing lightly. We’re really going to take it to them.”