I am so grateful to have been part of the Daily News staff of stringers who covered football games for the 2009 season. As a full-time sports editor in Novato in the Bay Area, I got more involved in the community and knew the kids better, but as a part-timer just covering games Friday nights this year--I saw much better games, for the most part. Freaking amazing games.
Two weeks ago, I saw Arleta nearly win on a last-second Hail Mary, and then last week I saw Westlake win a championship with a backup freshman quarterback ... freaking unbelievable.
Anyway, it was great to have my name on stories with this much excitement in them, and in my pride I started to think that, "oh, it's not good enough, people need to see the longer version." I was going to ask my editor if it was okay if I e-mailed the Westlake coaches with the longer version, and then I was going to just e-mail them because it seemed like one of those situations where it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
But then I stopped before sending the e-mail when i realized--the length of the story didn't really make that much of a difference. So no e-mail, but here's the long version, and here's the short version, and you can be the judge of how much of a difference it makes. The awesome-ness of the game is I think beyond dispute.
My name's Mark Dittmer; I last saw you last Friday night, when I got to write the Daily News game recap about your title win over Moorpark.
Anyway, I found I had a lot to say after the game--so much to say and not enough space to say it in. Point is, I wrote a longer version than what was published in Saturday's paper, and I wanted to share it with you, on the off chance that maybe you want access to a longer version next year when you're putting together the 2010 program.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Mark Dittmer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Fri, Dec 11, 2009 at 11:01 PM
Subject: Westlake gamer longer
By Mark Dittmer
Special to the Daily News
The latest chapter of one of the Valley’s greatest high school football rivalries took place Friday night at the Southern Section Northern Division championship game in Simi Valley.
It turned out to be a chapter easily worthy of the grand stage.
A freshman backup quarterback led Westlake on an 87-yard drive in the game’s final minutes, and he completed it by scoring the game-winning touchdown himself, converting on fourth-and-one with 41 seconds left remaining in the game to vault Westlake to a 14-10 victory and an undefeated season in the process.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Justin Moore, the freshman backup in question, who entered the game in the third quarter after starter Nick Isham left with a broken collarbone.
“I’ve never been put in a situation like that. I was glad I was able to help the team’s seniors continue what they’d started, and I was able to give our team an opportunity to do things it had never done.”
Actually, Westlake’s last CIF championship under head coach Jim Benkert came in 2003, but Moore was right that none of his teammates hade ever experienced anything quite like this.
Westlake had beaten Moorpark 38-14 in the regular season finale, for the Musketeers’ (12-2) only regular season loss. Early on, Westlake (14-0) seemed capable of dominating once again that same way, but Moorpark played the Warriors much closer this time around.
So close that it wasn’t even over after Moore’s touchdown—the Musketeers used a long kick return to get the ball into Warrior territory in the game’s final seconds. It was only after Moorpark quarterback Brody Rohach was sacked in his own backfield, the ball came loose and Shane Giraldo recovered – it was only then that bedlam erupted on the Westlake sideline.
“It’s just so real right now,” said Westlake running back Tavior Mowry, whose runs to the right side of the line helped set up the final scoring play, where Moore faked a handoff to the running back and then ran left. “I can’t believe it. I’m proud of everybody on the field … everybody stepped up!”
Of course, making the final score as close as it was was little consolation for the Musketeers.
“It would be nice to get one of these,” said Musketeer head coach Tim Lins, who has led his school to the Northern Division championship game four times in the last five years, only to come away a runner-up each time.
“The players are hurting because they put so much into it; they had their minds set on being CIF champions, and they played their hearts out to make that happen. They’re a great group of kids, and I told ‘em they had a great season.”
The encouragement had to help the disconsolate Brian Blechen, who tried to shoulder responsibility for the whole team’s loss himself. Blechen led a defense that stopped Westlake’s first drive with a goal-line stand, and ended another Warrior drive by forcing Isham into only his third interception of the season.
Those big plays by the Moorpark defense helped keep Westlake off the scoreboard despite a brilliant start by Isham, who completed his first seven passes for 127 yards. He finished the season with 137 completions for 2,128 yards and 30 passing touchdowns.
But it was Moore, the freshman playing his first important varsity game, who put Westlake over the top. And left Moorpark pondering what could have been.
“That touchdown was my fault,” Blechen said. “On (Moore’s scoring) play, everyone was where they were supposed to be except me. We’ve lost before like this, but this definitely hurts the most.”
For Westlake, on the other hand, it was pure bliss.
“I feel great,” said senior offensive lineman Chris Duran. “Everybody’s saying Westlake’s going to win state next year. I’m like, ‘What about this year?’
“It’s amazing. Since our freshman year, we’d never beat Moorpark, never beat (Thousand Oaks). This year we beat T.O., beat Moorpark twice … It feels great to win a championship.”
And it wasn’t as if the Warriors could claim to have seen it coming.
“No one would have thought we would get this far,” said senior defensive end Mason Thibo. “Other people were saying we were going to lose our first game. But what we have, that other teams don’t have, is a connection with each other. We’re a band of brothers.”
Westlake took an early lead on its second possession, when Isham threw a 27-yard touchdown to Nelson Spruce—Spruce’s 18th touchdown catch of the season.
But Moorpark hacked away at the Westlake lead, answering the Isham touchown with a 46-yard field goal by Stephen Picchini, and then scoring on an 82-yard drive after they got the ball back on the Isham interception (a pass tipped by Joey Eckert and then caught by A.J. Detorre).
That drive gave Moorpark a 10-7 lead, and running back Austin Edmonson ran for 55 yards on that drive alone on a day in which he finished with 154 yards. The drive was also sparked by 17 yards rushing by Blechen, who played briefly at quarterback. But starter Rohach was back in at the end of the drive to score the go-ahead touchdown on a quarterback keeper.
While Edmonson continued to pile up the yards in the second half, he could not do so consistently enough for Moorpark to sustain another drive. And so the teams traded punts throughout the second half (with Blechen’s punts generally helping Moorpark to better field position).
When Moore entered the game for Isham, Westlake fans may have had reason to think they were in trouble; after all, Isham has been uniquely brilliant this season, and Moore is an untested freshman.
But Lins knew not to celebrate the change in personnel.
“We knew about the guy,” Lins said. “He’s legit.”
Moore proved it on his first drive, throwing what appeared to be a 51-yard touchdown on a slant to Max Klinedinst. But the play was called back due to a penalty, and moments later, the Warriors lost 15 yards on a play where a snap went over the freshman’s head.
That possession, Moore’s first, ended in a punt. His next one also started inauspiciously: after two incomplete passes, his team faced third-and-10 on its own 13-yard-line. But he calmly found Spruce on a 28-yard completion, and the drive was alive. And so it could end in glory.
“I’m thankful my coaches gave me the opportunity,” Moore said.
Westlake finds out Sunday if it has an opportunity to play again; the Warriors could be selected to play in one of the state bowl championship games that pit the best in Southern California against the best in Northern California. The CIF bowl championship committee announces its selections on Sunday.
“That’s the day we’ve got our banquet,” Duran said with a happy shrug. “We’ll be celebrating together, and hopefully, we’ll find out we get to play another game.”