Apple Valley puts a dent in Culver City's great season
April 22, 2021
Without question, it was another highly dramatic, competitive and entertaining Friday Night Football game last week at Culver City High School to end the season. Unfortunately, the Centaurs came up just short of a perfect record, losing 49-42, as visiting Apple Valley High withstood a second-half comeback at Jerry Chabola Stadium on the Culver City campus. The Sun Devils clinched the thriller by recovering a Centaur onside kick attempt in the last minute.
"It was a back-and-forth game," said Culver City head coach Jahmal Wright. "They came out early and did a great job of sustaining drives. When they needed to come up with big third-and-long and fourth down conversions they were able to do that. And that was the difference in the game,"
Culver City quarterback Zevi Eckhaus said, "They executed well and in the plays that mattered most they did a little more than us. That's why we were on the opposing side of that scoreboard at the end of the night."
Despite the very abbreviated and delayed CIF football schedule this season due to Covid protocol restrictions, the matchup had the look and feel of a State Championship playoff game between the two undefeated League Champions. The 200-plus mile round trip for Apple Valley was well-worth the time and effort as both teams gave their well-represented but limited number of fans (players' families only) in attendance a lasting memory.
"They were the toughest opponent we played this season. It was a really good matchup between two really good teams. Unfortunately, the ball didn't roll our way this time," said wide receiver Legend Waring, who caught two touchdown passes.
"When they came in, they were trying to intimidate us with the big hits. But, by the end of the game we earned their respect. It was definitely a great matchup and a great experience for everybody to get some good competition to finish out our season."
The game was a classic battle of Culver City's record-setting passing attack versus Apple Valley's ball-control rushing machine. Eckhaus set another school record, this time the single-game passing percentage mark by completing 29 of 32 passes, a remarkable .906 completion ratio. Wide receiver Emari Pait punished the Sun Devils by catching four touchdown passes for the second time this season. He ended the year with 16 total touchdowns in five games, including one from an interception.
Eckhaus also finished with two school career passing records. He threw for 10,210 total passing yards, a huge milestone in State quarterback numbers. He also threw 137 touchdown passes, which is also in the Top 5 in State history. And Eckhaus shattered the school career passing percentage record of .632 set by Jonathan Martin with an astounding .677 mark according to Greg Goodyear, current kicking coach, former Culver City High quarterback and school athletic historian.
"Zevi played darned-near close to a perfect game," said Wright. "I don't know if I've never seen a quarterback throw the ball that many times and only have three incompletions for the whole game. So, that was pretty impressive. It wasn't that he was throwing the ball for a high percentage. He was throwing the ball all over the place."
For the second consecutive game the Centaurs fell behind by a couple of touchdowns in the first half as the Sun Devils took a 28-14 lead, eating up yardage and the clock with their punishing ground game. "It was hard to defend the rush because they had fresh legs and a lot of people to run behind" said Pait. "They had the line, plus two fullbacks, and then the running back with the ball. But, it was the trick plays and the defense not being disciplined on some third and fourth downs that hurt us."
Apple Valley quarterback Jayden Max denegal opened the scoring with a one-yard keeper at 9:47 in the first quarter. Pait's 11-yard touchdown reception tied the score, 7-7, at 6:19. "It was a normal pattern, just like a dig route. There was a little hole, and I went all the way across, sat in the hole, and Zevi threw it to me. Apple Valley responded with 12-yard touchdown keeper to the left by quarterback Max denegal at 2:46 late the quarter.
The Centaurs defense took a major hit at 7:39 in the second quarter when they failed to cover a 67-yard lateral option passing touchdown on third-and-10 just as the momentum was shifting their way. Three minutes later Pait caught a 27-yard touchdown pass, physically shaking off several defenders to walk into the end zone.
"I ran a post route," stated Pait. "I knew the defender was going to come inside, so I turned outside. He missed the tackle and other players tried to tackle me. They missed and I just got into the end zone." But the Centaurs defense took another major hit a minute before halftime, allowing a 42-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-two with 1:03 on the clock.
"Because we have been down at halftime before, we weren't worried," said Waring. "We were like, we've done this before. We're going to figure it out and we're going to come back and win just like we always somehow manage to do." We knew that if we got the ball and scored, it would change the momentum of the game."
True to form, Waring caught two touchdown passes from Eckhaus to quickly tie the game in the third quarter. The first occurred one minute and four seconds into the third quarter. "It was a mesh play,' said Waring. "My job was to work across the field on a short drag route. I went out the backdoor and was wide open to get into the end zone," Kicker Diego Caldera converted his third of six successful extra-point kicks. He finished the season with 25 total points on conversions.
One minute 12 seconds later, A seven-yard touchdown pass to Waring capped an 83-yard drive. Waring said, "I was in a bunch formation. Zevi rolled out to the right and I slipped out to the left side of the field and was wide open. Zevi threw me a perfect ball." Culver City got their first chance to take the lead a minute-plus later when linebacker Aaron Salas recovered a fumble at the Centaur 21-yard line.
"Look at the numbers Zevi and Emari put up on offense," said Wright. "The three years that Zevi has been our quarterback, I think our offense has been pretty fun to watch. And Zevi is a big reason why."
Disaster struck three plays later when running back Ayinde Bankole ran for a first down, but the officials ruled a fumble and recovery by Apple Valley. Pait and his teammates checked the video replay on the sideline. "Ayinde was down. It wasn't really a fumble," said Pait. The Sun Devils capitalized with a one-yard touchdown plunge at 3:34 in the third quarter.
Undeterred, Culver City urgently responded two minutes later. "We really took advantage of the zones that were open in Apple Valley's defense and did what Culver City's offense is known to do ,: said Eckhaus. "And that's to score and to put points up on the board. We just happen to be clicking as usual." Pait physically battled and outjumped the coverage for an 8-yard touchdown pass two minutes later to tie the score, 35-35, at 1:28 left in the third quarter. The fourth quarter was up for grabs.
Apple Valley landed the first punch while grinding the clock with a 16-yard touchdown sweep at 9:10 in the fourth quarter. The Centaurs were forced to punt on 4th-and-long with 5:46 remaining in the regulation. Apple Valley methodically proceeded to eat up the clock before a one-yard punch over the goal line with 49 seconds left gave them a 49-35 lead.
The Centaurs weren't finished yet as they struck nine seconds later with a 75-yard bomb to Pait. "I told Zevi to just throw it up to me. I'm going to go get it. I'm going to score. The route was a deep post. I saw the ball in the air, felt good and caught it," said Pait.
"We were talking as a team that we still have a chance," said Waring. "All we have to do is score quickly and it's still a game, we have a chance. Zevi threw up a great ball and Emari made a great catch and scored in eight seconds. That's all we needed was that onside kick to go our way." Unfortunately for the Centaurs the onside kick by Caldera was ideally placed with a high bounce but Apple Valley handled the attempt cleanly.
"Apple Valley did a good job of consistently running the ball the whole game," said Wright. "They were able to stay in front of the sticks in favorable down-and-distances. When they needed to convert longer third and fourth-down plays on separate occasions, they executed trick plays to perfection that really helped them keep their drives going," said Wright.
"I'm proud of how our team battled. That's just senior leadership. All those guys, we're going to see them play college football next year, very talented young men who have developed a chemistry playing together over the years."