Griffins gain edge in Sunset League race

Los Alamitos must navigate injuries in final games before heading to playoffs

Kaleb McCutcheon finishes a sack of Edison Quarterback Parker Awad. Photo by Marja Bene

Edison High hung with Los Alamitos for the early part of the game and refused to quit, but big plays by the Griffins kept the Chargers chasing as the Griffins pulled away for a 52-27 Sunset League football victory on Thursday at Huntington Beach High.

The Griffins improved to 3-0 in league play with Huntington Beach (1-2) and Fountain Valley (0-3) left on their schedule. Edison had come into the game at 7-0 and was expected to be the biggest hurdle for the Griffins in their chase for the league title.

Griffin Head Coach Ray Fenton said that they knew Edison was going to be tough test and that part of the reason they scheduled a tough preseason (including a trip to Florida) was to prepare for Edison. The win showed how much the Griffins have improved since the start of the season, Fenton noted

“That’s a really good football team … the reason we played that schedule was for this game and it worked out for us,” Fenton said.

Star wide receiver Makai Lemon played on defense, but only played a couple of plays on offense, as he is nursing an ankle injury. His first offensive play came about midway through the first quarter, after Edison had scored a touchdown to cut Los Al’s lead to 21-14.

After the ensuing kickoff, Malachi Nelson hit Lemon with a quick screen pass and with a couple of blockers in front, Lemon exploited a seam and outran the rest of the defense for a 1-play, 73-yard touchdown reception to push the lead back to 28-14.

Lemon had one other reception, but came up limping after the tackle. He did not play any more offense, but stayed in the game to play in the defensive backfield.

However, Edison would stay within striking distance. They opened the second half with a seven-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that cut the Griffins’ lead to 31-21, with nearly a full half to play. The teams exchanged punts before the Griffins would strike back with an eight-play drive that culminated with a 31 yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Carson Clark to extend the Griffins’ lead to 38-21.

The Griffins would take that lead into the fourth quarter, but Edison would threaten again. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty, the Chargers had first and 10, at the Griffin 28 yard line with about 10 minutes to play. Edison quarterback Parker Awad threw for the end zone, but overthrew the receiver. However, Lemon was able to run down the ball and make a diving interception in the back of the end zone to thwart the drive.

Los Alamitos was able to get one first down on the ensuing possession, but found themselves with third and 7 at their own 34, with 6:22 to play. After a timeout, the Griffins again struck with a big play, as Nelson connected with Ethan O’Connor for a 66-yard touchdown to essentially any hopes the Chargers had of closing the gap.

While the Chargers were able to move the ball at times and keep the game close early, the Los Alamitos defense came up with some key plays to stifle comeback attempts. The Chargers thwarted the Griffins’ first drive with a tipped pass and interception near the goal line.

The Chargers returned the ball all the way back to the Griffin 26 yard line before Nelson caught the runner from behind. But Los Al retaliated on the next play, when Sinn Brennan batted a pass over the middle into the air and it was intercepted by Kaleb McCutcheon.

Heading into their final two games, the Griffins have two teams with a combined 9-7 record. But the Griffins are trying to not only win the league title, but prepare for a playoff run, while trying to get several players healthy. After the game, Henderson said he felt like he would be fine, despite the tender ankle, and that he’d be able to fight through it. And the team is still looking to sharpen up its game for what should be a tough playoff bracket. Fenton said the teams they faced early in the season, and struggled against, had similar skill levels to Edison, to Thursday’s win was promising.

“It was a mark of how much we’ve improved during our preseason, leading up to this game,” Fenton said.

Henderson said that he feels like the team is close to its full potential. He said they just need to be prepared and ready to play.

“I feel like we should be just a little bit better, just a little bit, we’re cool as a team, great team, just a little bit more,” Henderson said.

Brennan said the main things the team needs to sharpen up are some of the little things. He noted some penalties that they committed and will need to avoid, as well as just being a little sharper on their schemes.

“Once we get on that, I feel like we’re going to be a way different team, I feel like right now the only thing holding us back being number 1 or number 2 is the little things, once we get on that, we’re going to be real good,” Brennan said.

After the game, Fenton noted the selflessness of Lemon to give up his offensive downs, and the grit of Henderson to fight through a gimpy ankle to help secure the win. But mostly he credited the team for its unity and growth over the course of the season. In particular, he said the days leading up to the showdown with rival Edison, showed a lot.   

“What I saw yesterday and today from our team, we’ve been trying to get to for four years, which is team unity and we covered each other tonight, it was the closest I’ve ever seen our team – bonding together – I’m talking about yesterday, today and tonight and it showed when we played a great football team tonight,” Fenton said.

Los Alamitos will host Huntington Beach on Friday and then close out the regular season at home against Fountain Valley.