Marty Graham 5:30 p.m., Feb. 5
Game of the Week: Oceanside at Helix
Pirates’ defense keys upset of top-seeded Highlanders in semis
LA MESA – In an unfamiliar role against Helix, Oceanside delivered a familiar result. The 4-seed Pirates used a stellar defensive performance to upset the top-seed Highlanders 24-17 on Thursday night in the Division II semifinals.
Oceanside’s defense thwarted two Helix drives in the final six minutes to clinch the victory. The Pirates booked their return trip to Qualcomm Stadium when a Brandon Lewis pass intended for Sam Meredith on fourth-and-goal fell incomplete in the corner of the endzone with 12 seconds left.
“I knew they were going to go on the wide side of the field. Sam Meredith ran the corner route and that was my man, so I made sure that even if he did catch the ball he wouldn’t get his foot inbounds,” said Oceanside linebacker Noah Tarrant. “I saw the crowd go wild, the defense on the field go wild and I just couldn’t believe it. I was in shock and it felt great.”
With 1:05 left, Helix (11-1) had a first-and-goal on the Oceanside five-yard line. The Pirates stuffed a pair of Darien Hancock inside runs and without timeouts the Highlanders were forced to spike the ball to set up the fourth down play.
“That’s as intense as it gets. You’re literally in a moment where the game is on the line,” said Oceanside head coach John Carroll. “The game is on the line for them, the game is on the line for us and everybody knows it in the crowd.”
Just four minutes earlier, Oceanside (9-3) stopped a Helix drive that began in the red zone following a fumble. Those two stands punctuated a game that belonged to the Pirates’ defense.
“You give them two short fields to try and score at the end of the game like that and the momentum is theirs,” Carroll said. “For the defense to swell up like that just demonstrates the heart, the courage, the character and the toughness when it counts.”
With less than a minute left in a tightly played first quarter, Oceanside opened the scoring with a Jose Basurto 37-yard field goal. The Pirates’ defense scored the first touchdown of the game on the next drive, when defensive back Adam Francis intercepted a Lewis overthrow and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown to put Oceanside up 10-0.
“Oceanside defense is a tradition,” Tarrant said. “Last year our brothers just taught us to play hard-nosed defense. We just carried on the tradition that our older brothers taught us and it paid off.”
After an interception, Helix got on the board late in the second quarter with a Lewis 35-yard touchdown pass to Austin Gonzalez. The Highlanders took a 14-10 lead on the first drive of the second half, marching down the field with the inside running of Darien Hancock, who scored on a one-yard run.
“There were the ups and downs, momentum shifts throughout the whole game,” Tarrant said.
Trailing by four, Oceanside made two big plays in the last two minutes of the third quarter to swing the momentum. The first was a Tarrant 39-yard touchdown run straight up the middle on a third-and-one with 2:12 left in the quarter.
“Coach said just one cut this game and go and that’s what I did,” Tarrant said. “It was a blessing to see the hole open up like that. I couldn’t believe it and I just ran.”
The second play came courtesy of the Oceanside defense. As time expired in the third quarter the Pirates forced a Hancock fumble, which linebacker T.J Sunia scooped up and took 27 yards into the endzone – a play that turned the tide and gave Oceanside a 10-point lead.
Midway through the fourth quarter Helix made it a 24-17 game with a Vann Sabin 40-yard field goal. After that the Highlanders had two drives with a chance to tie the game, with Oceanside’s defense getting the stop on both occasions.
“We didn’t want this game to be the last game we played with each other. We knew that the only way we could get to Qualcomm was through Helix,” Tarrant said. “Those are our family and those are our brothers we’ve been playing them for so long. It’s good to beat them.”
With the win Oceanside advances to Monday’s Division II finals at Qualcomm Stadium, where they will play for a seventh straight section title. The Pirates will play 3-seed Mission Hills (10-2) who they beat 48-28 on Oct. 8.
“At the beginning of the year this was supposed to be the year that people had a chance to get their shot at Oceanside,” Carroll said. “We had very few kids that had any experience at all playing on the varsity level this year and just look how far they’ve come. We’ve gone from an inexperienced team to just a very very very good football team.”
Oceanside quarterback Tofi Pao Pao directs traffic at the line of scrimmage