ANAHEIM – The tally on La Habra's fourth consecutive Southern Section championship will show that the Highlanders scored five touchdowns, including the decisive one midway through the fourth quarter.
But when the history of third-seeded La Habra's 35-26 Southwest Division victory over top-seeded Tustin is recalled, it will be the second and third ones that are talked about, and the fact that the Highlanders beat Tustin at its own game.
La Habra (11-3) matched St. Margaret's as the only team in Orange County to ever win four consecutive titles. The Highlanders' three losses were to Trinity League teams Servite, Orange Lutheran and St. John Bosco. Tustin finished 12-2 in front of 7,294 at Angel Stadium.
La Habra senior Drake Griffin carried 29 times for 317 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of 44, 11, four and nine yards. The Highlanders also salvaged the first half with a TD drive in the final minute, and they drove 93 yards on their first possession of the second half. That's where the title was won.
It was the score before the half that might have been the most important. Mike Sparling's 40-yard kickoff return gave La Habra a short field at the 50-yard line.
“That was huge,” winning coach Frank Mazzotta said of Sparling's big run. “We had to get a score.”
Sparling's return was only one element. La Habra, the more balanced of the two teams, covered the 50 yards in 56 seconds as Cody Clements threaded a pass to Vai Peka – who got clobbered in the end zone after making the 13-yard reception with three seconds left. Clements completed three passes for 36 yards on the six-play drive.
“Vai made a big play going into the half,” Griffin said. “It really switched the momentum big time, going into the half 20-14 instead of 20-7.”
Clements, who averaged 18 pass attempts per game and threw for 31 touchdowns with only one interception, completed five of a mere eight passes for 58 yards with a long of 16.
On La Habra's first possession of the second half, the Highlanders drove 93 yards in 11 plays. Griffin ran for 11, then 65, and he finished it with an 11-yard score less than 4-1/2 minutes into the third quarter. Sean Wale kicked the point-after for a 21-20 lead and La Habra never trailed again.
“Our offensive line did a really good job,” said Griffin, who played at private school St. Paul last season but left because of the financial strain. “We felt we were a stronger team up front, why not pound it down their throats?”
La Habra's ground attack wasn't by design, but came about because of the success it was having early on. Since they were picking up yards at a good clip, they continued to pound behind Kevin Casey, Kyle Peko, Josh Elkington, Spencer Long and Brian Rolon. The Griffins finished with with 337 rushing and didn't attempt a pass in the second half.
Tustin gave a good account for itself. The Tillers plowed for 403 yards, and they might have won had they been able to connect on a couple of their four passes, but on fourth-and-five at the La Habra 31, Cody Oxby overthrew by a foot wide-open Denzale Stewart for a sure touchdown. La Habra took over on downs and went 69 yards for a 28-20 lead.
Tustin answered with Terence Martinez's 27-yard run, but a pass on the two-point conversion attempt was just barely wide, so it was 28-26.
Then La Habra closed it out with an eight-play, 72-yard drive in which Griffin scored from nine yards.
Tustin's leading rusher, Tyler Siudzinski, was slowed by an injury in the second half. After carrying 11 times for 122 yards in the first half, he carried only six times for 21 yards in the second. Martinez, a sophomore, carried 12 times for 98 and a touchdown, and Diego Mendoza 23 for 87 with a score that gave Tustin a 20-7 lead.
“They're an outstanding team, much more explosive than we are, and it showed,” said Tustin coach Myron Miller, whose teams have reached the section semifinals eight times in his 16 years there, but is 0-3 in title games. Tustin lost 26-14 to La Habra in 2008. The Tillers' only championship came in 1948.
“They're very cerebral, they just find a little chink in your armor,” Miller continued. “That looked like Tustin football. Our defensive line, outside linebackers and secondary are very young. I thought we could stop them better. We were in position. . . . Give them credit for winning the game. (Griffin) was good. They have more ways to win than just one.
“I know one thing. We'll play better defense next year.”