PALM SPRINGS -- The football team at Rancho Verde of Moreno Valley had a lot to play for on Friday night against Palm Springs High in the CIF-Southern Section Central Division championship game.
Rancho Verde was playing another 13-0 club on its home field and trying to erase the memory of last year's bitter defeat to Colton in the Central Division title game.
Rancho Verde coach Pete Duffy wanted to get his team off to a quick start, not only to build momentum but because Palm Springs hadn't trailed all season. They did just that, scoring 14 first-quarter points to spark a 35-16 victory as Rancho Verde won its first section title in school history.
"We were really fortunate to convert those pass plays early," said a water-soaked Duffy as he was congratulated by parents and well-wishers. "Looking back at it now, you can see where it [them not trailing all season coming in] may have been a factor. But I wasn't thinking about that as the game played out."
The pass plays Duffy was referring to started on the Mustangs' second drive when Rancho Verde quarterback Carlos Hernandez hit junior wide receiver Demorea Stringfellow on a skinny post for a 25-yard touchdown with 5:46 remaining in the first quarter. Less than a minute later, Palm Springs' Nick King gained six yards on a pass reception but fumbled. It was recovered by Rancho Verde's standout linebacker Blair Brown. The Mustangs turned the turnover into six points when Hernandez hit senior Breon Redman on a 8-yard out route to give the No. 1 seed a 14-0 lead with 4:01 remaining in the first quarter.
"I just saw it [the fumble] and jumped on it," Brown said. "I could tell they were giving up as the game went on.
"I just can't believe it's here and we did it. It was just something inside of us that wanted to get back here to this level."
No. 2-seeded Palms Springs was shell-shocked after falling behind and was burned once again on a big play when Redman heaved an end around pass to senior Kenny Torrance for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter to make the score 21-0.
Palm Springs (13-1) was able to hold off Rancho Verde (14-0) for the rest of the first half with some timely first downs and got on the board with a 35-yard field goal by Mario Codero with 2:02 showing on the clock.
Rancho Verde, which came in ranked No. 16 in the ESPNLA.com prep football Top 25 and No. 22 overall in the state by CalHiSports.com, only threw two passes in the second half. The Mustangs looked to work the clock, but the passes ended up being daggers.
Redman beat his defender on a 11-yard slant to give Rancho Verde a commanding 28-3 lead with 8:48 remaining in the third quarter. Senior wideout Jamion Lindsey made his only reception of the game count, hauling in a pass from Hernandez wide open over the middle for a 63-yard touchdown with 11:03 left in the game.
At that point, the Mustangs led 35-3 and the Indians were only able to score on the Rancho Verde second-stringers. Jordan White scored on a 4-yard reverse with 5:40 left and when King scored on a 59-yard bomb as game clock ran out, Rancho Verde was already in celebratory mode.
"Pressure," was the word Palm Springs head coach Steve Fabian used to describe his team's sub-par execution. "If you have six turnovers, you'll lose a championship game.
"My hats off to Rancho Verde. They are a hell of a football team.”
King was the brightest spot on offense for Palm Springs, which came in ranked No. 25 in the ESPNLA.com top 25. He finished with 10 receptions for 158 yards and one touchdown.
For Rancho Verde, Redman had six receptions for 55 yards and two touchdowns to go with his 70-yard touchdown pass. Hernandez's numbers in a solid performance were 10 of 14 completions for 166 yards and four touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Rancho Verde will enjoy its first championship ever for the next 36 hours and they will wait to see if they are selected to represent Southern California in the CIF Division II State Championship Bowl Game.
They came into the weekend ranked No. 2 in the Cal-Hi Sports SoCal Div. II bowl ratings behind CIF San Diego Section school Helix of La Mesa (12-1). That school became bowl eligible on Monday with a 44-6 rout of Oceanside at Qualcomm Stadium in that section's Div. II title game.
Evaluating both teams four days apart, it’s safe to say Div. II south will likely be the hardest choice to make for the CIF commissioners.
"I think our track record, winning 27 of 28 games and our combination of speed and discipline makes us an attractive team," Duffy said.
"We're confident we can play with any Div. II team in the state. We'll just wait to see what happens."