By Tony Solorzano
(La Habra) – Former Alhambra defensive standout Vai Peko has found his niche as his 92-yard kickoff return helped carry La Habra to a 23-17 victory over La Mirada Thursday night at La Habra High.
The Highlanders (1-1) had struggled throughout the game to maintain their lead, and twice saw their lead vanish thanks to quarterback Shane Blood of the Matadors (0-2). In fact, Blood had driven the Matadors all the way to the Highlander 13 yard line with less than a minute left in the game when he failed to connect on three pass attempts and turned the ball over, ending what would have been one of the most exciting comebacks in the new season.
“We’ll take the win,” said La Habra Head Coach Frank Mazzotta after the game. “We made some mistakes that can be attributed to the inexperience at certain positions.”
The Highlanders got on the board first as Drake Griffin scored on a 43-yard run with 4:52 left in the first quarter for the 7-0 lead. Junior kicker Sean Wale attempted a 44-yad Field goal early in the second but the kick was no good. Wale was able to extend the lead with 1:15 left in the half by hitting from 33 yards out, giving the Highlanders a 10-0 lead at the half. Wale’s kick ended a frustrating series where the Highlanders had reached the Matador 11 yard-line but three false start penalties and rush that was stopped for a loss ended up giving the Highlanders a third and goal on the 33, which eventually ended with Wale’s kick.
In the second half, La Mirada took advantage of a fumble by Mike Sparling on the opening kickoff and recovered the ball in Highlander territory. Nine plays later, Blood carried the ball into the end zone to get the Matadors on the board with 7:12 left in the third. On La Habra’s ensuing drive, Sparling, who also handles La Habra’s punting duties, faked a punt on fourth-and-seven at the 35 but was stopped two yards short of the first down. The Matadorsdrove deep into the Highlander red zone and came away with a game-tying 28-yard field goal from Jacob Otero with 1:21 left in the quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, Peko, who had been sharing special teams duties with Sparling, took the kickoff at his own 8-yard line and burst through the Matador defense en route to a 92-yard return and the lead once again, seemingly bringing the Matadors’ momentum to a standstill. However, in the fourth quarter, Max Gama, who got most of the passing attempts from Blood, capped a 14-play 80-yard drive with a second game tying score, a three-yard run with 8:24 left in the game to tie things at 17-17.
However, the Highlanders were not done, as La Habra back-up quarterback Matt Yackey, who started in place of the injured Cody Clements, drove the team 65 yards, culminating in Ahmad Avery’s five-yard run. However, Wale’s point after attempt was blocked, giving the Matadors a slim chance at a victory if they could find the end zone in the final 4:19 left in the game.
The Matadors started on their own 30-yard line but found themselves with a third-and-five on their own 35 when Blood’s incomplete pass to Anthony Diaz was flagged for pass interference, giving the Matadors a first down at mid-field. A few plays later, the Matadors got another gift, this time from Blood, who turned a fourth-and-nine into an 11 quarterback scramble to the La Habra 20 and a first down. He then called his own number again, this time getting to the 13 yard line. Unfortunately, his final three pass attempts, to Andy Gramajo in the back of the end zone, a sideline pass to Diaz who wasn’t expecting it as he turned the corner route and a pass batted down by linebacker Aaron Porter, ended what could have been one of the most dramatic endings in the new season.
Yackey threw only five completions for 56 yards, while Griffin ran the ball 12 times for 122 yards. The Highlanders had a total offense of 282 yards, 226 of which came on the ground. Blood fared better, going 18 for 28 for 162 yards, while Alex Munoz carried the ball 10 times for 56 yards. The Matadors had a total offense of 250 yards.
La Habra faces off against Servite next Friday while La Mirada hosts Cal High at La Mirada.