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Grizzlies methodically bounce Cougars in Division II quarterfinals

SAN MARCOS – Since losing its first three games, Mission Hills has made success a habit – and the Grizzlies aren’t slowing down in the postseason. Friday night in the Division II quarterfinals, fourth-seeded Mission Hills rolled to a defense-led 21-7 win over fifth-seeded Steele Canyon to advance and extend its current eight-game unbeaten streak.

“In the bye week after the third loss we stepped back and looked at ourselves instead of our opponents, and we wanted to fix things internally and grow up as a team,” said Mission Hills senior defensive end/tight end Anthony Lira. “After that bye week we came out with the mindset that we wouldn’t be denied.”

Mission Hills (7-3-1) committed to running the ball early, and the Grizzlies struck first on an Eric Romero 27-yard end-around touchdown run in the first quarter. After missing a field goal on a productive first drive, Steele Canyon (8-4) had trouble moving the ball against Mission Hills.

“We had to start fast and strong on defense,” Lira said. “We set out to play fast, play hard and get the job done.”

Late in the second quarter, Mission Hills had the ball in Steele Canyon territory looking to extend its lead when the Cougars defense came up with a big play. Steele Canyon defensive lineman Benjamin Gossmeyer sacked Mission Hills quarterback Connor Wynn and forced a fumble that Cougars lineman P.J. Russell scooped up and returned 55 yards for a touchdown that made it 7-7 headed into halftime.

“I like the way our kids battled for the whole game,” said Steele Canyon head coach Ron Boehmke.

Mission Hills started the second half with the ball and methodically marched down the field to take control of the close game. Led by the inside running of junior back Dakota Westbrook, the Grizzlies opened the third quarter with a 95-yard touchdown drive that lasted nearly 10 minutes and gave the hosts a 14-7 advantage.

“We were moving the ball in the first half, just not scoring,” Lira said. “We showed we could drive the ball on these guys and we just wanted to continue that in the second half.”

Wynn capped the drive by calling his own number for a one-yard quarterback sneak on third-and-goal. The initial play called during a timeout was an outside hand-off, but when Wynn got to the line of scrimmage he saw a clearer path to the end zone and changed the play – a surprise to his teammates.

“He looked at the line and it clicked in his head,” Lira said. “He hiked it, we were running the play to the right and all of a sudden it was a touchdown and we wondered what happened. He caught his own offensive line off guard.”

Mission Hills led by seven at the start of the fourth quarter and prevented Steele Canyon from crossing midfield for the remainder of the game. With 2:38 remaining, Grizzlies linebacker Jordan Carroll knocked down a Brandon Andrade fourth-down pass to clinch the victory.

“We believed that we were going to do the job up front and that the back seven would do what they do,” Lira said. “It was an all-around effort and the entire defense played their butts off.”

Westbrook added a one-yard touchdown run with less than a minute to ice the Mission Hills victory. The junior had a healthy amount of carries in the win, most of which came inside.

“During practice we balanced both passing and running, but coach told me tonight that we were going to be running the ball a lot,” Westbrook said. “I’m glad I got to do that.”

Mission Hills advances to the Division II semifinals to face top-seeded Helix (10-1) next Thursday in La Mesa. The Grizzlies are looking forward to a showdown against the highly held Highlanders.

“Every player in every sport wants to be in this position – to have an opportunity to go down there and play a really good team,” Lira said. “We are confident that we will give them a good game.”

For the second straight season, Steele Canyon had its season ended by Mission Hills. The Cougars fought through numerous late-season injuries to make it past the first round, but ultimately did not have enough to keep their season going.

“Our kids were very resilient and they didn’t give up,” Boehmke said. “They kept their heads up.”

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