Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Game of the Week: Poway at Helix
Early mistakes, stout defense propel Titans past Highlanders in semis
LA MESA – Poway has sought respect all season, and Friday against Helix in the Division II semifinals they definitively earned it. In a matchup of defending section champions, the third-seeded Titans took advantage of mistakes and controlled the line of scrimmage to shut down the second-seeded Highlanders 21-7.
“There was a lot of doubt throughout the county about our team and we wanted to come out tonight and earn that respect,” said Poway senior linebacker Max Michaels. “We felt like we did that and we still have one more – the job is not done yet.”
In the first quarter, Poway (10-2) capitalized on miscues to build an early lead. A mishandled punt on the game’s opening drive gave the Titans the ball at the Helix 17-yard line, and the visitors went up 7-0 on a 5-yard bootleg run by junior quarterback Max Washam with 7:50 remaining.
“If our defense and special teams can help get us on the board, we take every opportunity we can get,” said Titans senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen. “Our offense did a great job of taking what was given and our defense and special teams did what we’ve been doing all season – taking the ball away and scoring points.”
On the next possession, Poway senior Nehemiah Gross intercepted a pass by Helix junior quarterback Josh Harris to start the Titans in opposing territory once again. Poway drove 41 yards for a score after the turnover, a drive capped by a Gross 5-yard run that made it 14-0.
“Once our kids realized that we could compete with them, there was no turning back,” said Poway head coach Damian Gonzalez. “The kids just had a lot of confidence and played great Titan football tonight.”
Early in the second quarter, Poway added to its lead when Gross broke outside for a 15-yard touchdown on a drive that started in Helix territory following a short Highlanders punt. The Titans’ quick three-score advantage provided an unexpected comfort level against higher-seeded Helix (10-1).
“That lead really got us going – it gave the offense and defense confidence and we were able to run our whole playbook on defense,” Petersen said.
Poway led 21-0 at halftime after dominating Helix in the opening two quarters. The Titans controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and held the explosive Highlanders without a first down.
“They have a dominant offense and we wanted to prove that we could shut them down,” Michaels said. “We took it as a challenge.”
Helix showed signs of life early in the second half as it tried to get back in the game. After a defensive stop on the first possession of the third quarter, the Highlanders quickly marched 56 yards for a touchdown – a 29-yard run by senior running back Michael Adkins that made it 21-7.
Both defenses owned the rest of the game, turning it into a hard-hitting struggle and allowing Poway to keep Helix at a distance. The Titans stopped the Highlanders four times in the fourth quarter, and an interception senior defensive back Derek Babiash in the last minute secured victory for Poway and eliminated the defending state champions.
“We came out here and took care of business,” said Gross, who rushed for 110 yards on 24 carries. “We took so much time focusing on playing Poway football, watching what Helix does best and trying to shut it down.”
Poway’s defense turned in a dominant performance against Helix, and it started with the defensive line. The unit directed by defensive coordinator Robby Sevier recorded nine sacks, applied pressure throughout the game and kept the Highlanders from establishing a rhythm until it was too late.
“We think we have the best defensive line as a unit in the county, and we took it upon ourselves to stop them and stuff the run,” Petersen said. “We get after it and keep our motors going.”
After winning the Division I championship last season, Poway hoped for a matchup with defending Division II section and state champion Helix this year to decide supremacy. An enrollment drop gave the Titans their wish, and they took full advantage with a spot in the section finals on the line.
“It’s two great programs in the county – we are defending section champs and they are defending state champs,” Gonzalez said. “What gave us a lot of motivation was the newspaper saying it was going to be an Oceanside-Helix final.”
Poway advances to the Division II finals to face top-seeded Oceanside (11-1) next Saturday at Escondido High. The Titans fell 23-13 to the Pirates at home in the regular season, and get a chance at revenge in a game with state playoff implications.
“We’ve been waiting for it since the clock ended in that game – we knew what we did wrong and we can’t turn the ball over,” Petersen said. “As long as we play Poway football, we’re going to win that.”