For the second year in a row, the Carlsbad Lancers finished as one of the top teams in the regular season in the San Diego Section.
For the second year in a row, the Lancers have been denied the section’s Open Division championship.
The Lincoln Hornets stung a seemingly invincible Carlsbad team last year in the Open Division championship game, winning
28-24 in dramatic come-from-behind fashion.
This year it was the Granite Hills Eagles who delivered the knockout blow with a thrilling 46-45 overtime win on Nov. 9 on a walk-off two-point conversion in the division semifinals.
The Eagles (11-0) will play the top-seeded Lincoln Hornets (11-0) in Saturday’s Open Division championship game at Snapdragon Stadium. Kick-off is 7 p.m.
The stakes were high for all four teams in this year’s Open Division semifinals, but especially so for Granite Hills and Carlsbad, both of which were sporting undefeated 10-0 records.
The semifinal game was played in front of 4,000 fans.
The attendance will likely top that Saturday.
“Making the Open Division finals is a huge accomplishment,” Granite Hills head coach Kellan Cobbs said. “Our kids worked hard all year and really stepped up in a semifinals game. They played (well) when they needed to. We are playing a great opponent in Lincoln. We will need to be at our best in order to win.”
It took everything the Eagles had in their playbook in the semis.
Granite Hills scored via the running game on four of its first five possessions, needing 80 yards to score on three of those drives. Granite Hills led, 28-21, at halftime but Carlsbad responded by scoring 17 of the next 20 points to open the second half, in the process taking a 38-31 lead on the scoreboard.
The Eagles, led by freshman quarterback Zachary Benitez, relied on the strength of their run game to prevail over the Lancers (10-1). Juniors Pablo Jackson (27 carries, 104 yards) and Max Turner (129 carries, 101 yards) combined to score five of their team’s six touchdowns. Turner scored three rushing touchdowns while Jackson had two as the tandem terror combined for 205 of the team’s 209 rushing yards in the high-profile game.
Turner scored from five yards out late in the first half to put the East County visitors up by seven points. He took a direct snap and scored from one yard out with 20 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
Benitez, who completed 20 touchdown passes against just two interceptions during the regular season, was ready when his turn came up. He threw a seven-yard TD pass to senior Josh Zander on a critical fourth-down play to net six points for the Eagles in overtime. Jackson scored on the ensuing two-point conversion for the game-winning points.
Benitez finished the game 24-of-33 for 229 yards and one overtime touchdown. Junior Brenden Lewis caught 14 passes for 154 yards during regulation.
On the season, Jackson and Turner has rushed for 1,003 yards and 15 touchdowns while Jackson is just behind with 691 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Benitez has passed for 1,911 yards while Lewis has 694 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
The Eagles continue to post impressive numbers in this history-making season. The win over Carlsbad was the team’s 20th consecutive dating to last season and just the fourth time in the 10-year history of the Open Division that a road team has won a playoff game.
The Lancers relied on their go-to players for success. Senior quarterback Julian Sayin, who is bound for the University of Alabama, passed for three touchdowns — one each to seniors Griffin Rosenbloom, Will Cianfrini and Luke Fernelli. Senior Mason Walsh rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns.
Saturday’s championship game matches a rare alignment. Granite Hills is the defending state 2-A champion while Lincoln, winners of 23 games in a row, won last year’s state 1-AA title.
The Open Division champion advances to the state playoffs. The season is over for the runner-up.
Helix (9-2) came within an eye blink of making Saturday’s Open Division final an all-East County match-up after falling, 45-38, to the host Hornets in two overtimes.
Helix began a spirited rally that saw the Highlanders take a 31-28 lead in the dying minutes of regulation.
The game was hectic and back-and- forth the entire second half.
The Highlanders, trailing 21-17, took a 24-21 lead on a 14-yard pass from senior Ryland Jessee to senior tight end Gordon Meredith in the third quarter. But junior Donald Reed III promptly put the hosts back on top 28-24.
A fake punt for a 25-yard gain by senior Markel Wright set up the Scotties’ final go-ahead touchdown on a pass from Jessee.
But Lincoln had enough left in its gas tank to drive 80 yards in 12 plays for a game-tying 36-yard field goal by junior Felix Radilla-Benavidez as time expired. The ball barely cleared the upright to keep Helix players and staff from celebrating a hard-earned victory.
The teams entered the OT tiebreaker knotted at 31-31 apiece.
Helix scored first on a four-yard run by senior Kevin Allen III for a 38-31 lead. The Hornets tied the game, 38-38, on a spinning run by junior Aden Jackson.
Reed got the hand-off in the second overtime and scored from 14 yards to boost Lincoln up by seven points.
The Highlanders, facing fourth hand-two, responded with another hand-off to Allen. But the Hornets were waiting for him and seniors Micah Valenzuela and Trenice Woods impeded Allen’s progress, forcing a measurement.
The chains came up a yard short to end the game and send Lincoln to the championship game.
Jessee, though obviously disappointed by the game’s outcome, summoned up the courage to talk to the media post-game.
“There’s a lot of emotions,” Jessee said. “I’m just grateful for my experience at Helix.”
The Hornets scored six rushing touchdowns in the game.
Jackson had 12 carries for 70 yards and scored three touchdowns for Lincoln, which also received 30 rushing yards on six carries from Reed and two touchdowns. Junior C.J. Williams had seven carries for 37 yards and one touchdown.
Junior Akili Smith Jr. passed for 264 yards but did not complete a touchdown while intercepted once (Helix junior Alex Rubalcaba).
Junior Dreyden Garner had three catches for 110 yards, including one reception for 50 yards.
Challenged with adversity, Lincoln head coach David Dunn said the come-from-behind victory showcased the resiliency and character of his team.
“That was definitely big for us,” Dunn said. “During the season we really weren’t challenged. It was epic.
“Granite Hills is definitely a formidable opponent.”