Jackrabbits make up 10-point deficit in fourth quarter to defeat Tesoro 20-17
Long Beach Poly fans chanted "We want State!" after the Jackrabbits won their 18th CIF-Southern Section title last week. Saturday night at the Home Depot Center, they'll get their wish.
After defeating Rancho Santa Margarita Tesoro 20-17 for their second-consecutive Pac-5 championship at Angel Stadium – their first consecutive titles since 2000-01 – Poly (14-0) will face Sacramento Grant (13-0) in the open division state championship game.
It's impossible to predict how that game can live up to sheer drama of last week's championship – not when Poly scored twice in six minutes after being stifled by Tesoro for 39 minutes.
Their normally dominant running game was held in check, their vaunted defense, was being picked apart, by Tesoro quarterback Robbie Picazo and wide receiver Preston King.
Pretty much, Poly had the Titans right where they wanted them. Trailing by 10 points with 9:40 left in their season.
Quarterback Morgan Fennell took to the air and led the Jackrabbits on an 80-yard drive that ended with Fennell throwing a 24-yard touchdown to Damon Smith on fourth-and-4 despite leaving the field gingerly after taking a big hit.
"They obviously didn't hit me hard enough," Fennell said.
After missing the extra point kept the score 17-13, it was time for the defense to come to life. Defensive back Stanjarivus McKay, who had an interception in the first quarter, broke up a pass on third down and Poly took over on their 22-yard line with 4:13 left.
Fennell threw a 10-yard completion to junior Ryan Goforth. Two plays later, it was time for tailback Melvin Richardson to live up to his halftime request.
"I told the coaches just put me in the game more," Richardson said. "They know what I could do."
Richardson took the ball down the right sideline and was nearly pushed out of bounds near midfield. Somehow, he tiptoed his way on the edge and found the goal line.
It was a 60-yard scamper that would go down as one of the biggest runs of his career and one that fans of Poly football would not forget.
"I was afraid that I would step out of bounds, I just thank God that I didn't," he said.
Richardson finished with 132 yards (87 coming after halftime) and two second-half touchdowns. But it was his quarterback who played just as huge – if not more so given the criticism he's had to overcome.
All season long, Poly's one-dimensional running attack had been questioned for its ability to carry them without a proven passing game. But Fennell, who has battled with consistency the past two seasons, proved that the team could rely on his arm if needed.
"We pass when we need to pass, he said, "Everybody said that just because we run, we're not going to make it a championship, but we just did."
Poly's resiliency in the second half of their postseason games has added a new dimension to their solid season. It's a trend that first showed in September when they defeated Carson 14-0 after scoring twice in the fourth quarter.
It's continued in the postseason where they've outscored opponents 65-27 and had to score late in their games to pull out victories after being tied or trailing at halftime.
They'll face another high-powered offense in Grant, a team that has scored at least 34 points in all but one game. If the Pacers can get out to a big lead, it won't be any worry to Poly, who already knows how to handle such deficits.
"We stay poised because we're a great team," Fennell said, "We know how to come back and we know how to keep fighting."