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By Fred Altieri
Sports Reporter 

Culver City football delights homecoming crowd


October 7, 2021

George Laase

Six-foot six-inches 235 pound Culver City junior tackle, Chuka Anuluoha pounces on a Mustang runner during the Centaurs win over Mira Costa last Friday night.

Friday Night Football at Culver City High School delivered another exciting conclusion to begin the month of October. The Centaurs held off favored Mira Costa High, 16-9, with seven seconds remaining in the game at Jerry Chabola Stadium to successfully open the 2021 Bay League season in front of a large homecoming crowd. Delayed by pandemic policies until early this year, Culver City won the 2020 Bay League Championship going undefeated with four wins this past spring.

The Centaurs are currently tied for first place in the Bay League with Peninsula High who opened with a 33-10 road win over Redondo Union High last Friday. Both Mira Costa and Redondo Union are 0-1 and tied for third in the league standings. The scheduled game between Palos Verdes High and Santa Monica High, both with 0-0 records, was cancelled. Culver City will face the Sea Hawks at Redondo Union this Friday, October 10, at 7:00 p.m.

"I thought Mira Costa was a quality opponent. They're battle-tested. They were favored to win by over a touchdown, and not too many people gave us a chance to win the game. We never trailed in the ballgame. We set the tone early," said Centaur's head coach Jahmal Wright.

"I thought the defense, the defensive line, especially Mason (Merriwether, guard) and Bryce (Williams, tackle), they did a great job. Mira Costa was stubborn and tried to run the ball up the side. But Mason and Bryce wouldn't let them."

Unlike Centaurs' high-scoring 35-28 tightrope win over the Mustangs last season, the game quickly turned into a defensive battle. Neither team scored multiple times in any quarter and remarkably, City's defense held Costa Mesa's high-scoring offense to a mere touchdown and one field goal.

Culver City's defense saved the best for last as Mira Costa had first down on the Centaur 25-yard line with 54 seconds remaining in regulation. A touchdown would likely prompt the Mustangs to go for the two-point conversion for the win on the road. Mira Costa had to spike the ball to stop the clock on first down as they had no time outs left. On second down, Centaur cornerback Chauncy Robinson clamped down on the Mustang receiver at the 15-yard line to force an incomplete pass.

After seeing the Mira Costa's offensive formation, Coach Wright called a defensive timeout before third down-and-ten. It paid off as Merriwether sacked Mustang senior quarterback Casey Pavlick for a 5-yard loss. On fourth down with no time outs and the clock running down, free safety Jamiere Munson intercepted a pass just shy of the endzone at the one-yard line with seven seconds remaining. The Homecoming crowd roared with their approval along with a sigh of relief.

"We knew they didn't have any time outs left and they were going to have to throw the football. So, our goal was to get pressure on the quarterback and play man-to-man defense. We were able to do that and come out with a victory," said Wright.

"Our defensive line got a lot of pressure and our defensive backs did a good job of holding their ground and stopping the receivers from catching the football. It made it tough for Mira Costa. They had a couple of chances, but they weren't able to succeed."

The Culver City defense made an early impact when cornerback D.J. Powell intercepted a pass at the Centaur 26-yard line to stop the Mustangs' opening drive of the game. Esparza then marched the Centaurs to red zone territory before Diego Caldera kicked a 35-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead at 4:53 in first quarter. Mira Costa's next possession resulted in a three-and-out and 21-yard punt return by Jerin Stanton to the Centaur 47-yard line.

The Centaurs took a 10-0 lead 31 seconds into the second quarter when Esparza threaded a pass to wide receiver Ethan Harris, who caught the ball at the 13-yard line and ran it into the endzone for a 30-yard touchdown. Caldera converted the extra-point kick. Mira Costa finally got on the scoreboard just before halftime with a 78-yard march that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass. Culver City blocked the extra-point attempt kick to lead 10-6 going into halftime.

Things got tighter when Mira Costa opened the second half with a 29-yard field goal by senior kicker Van Graw, as the lead was reduced to a single point, 10-9, with 6:41 to go in the third quarter. Both defenses held until Culver City's offense took over at the 40-yard line just before the start of the fourth quarter. Esparza moved the Centaurs down to the 15-yard line, then connected on a touchdown pass to wide receiver Ryan Franklin for a 16-9 lead as the extra-point conversion attempt was wide. The Centaur defense proceeded to stifle three more drives by Mira Costa to preserve the victory.

"We're a work-in-progress. We have a very young inexperienced offensive group. I think it's unrealistic to think that the offensive team that we have is just going to score 50 points a game like we have done the last six years when we've had an experienced quarterback. But I thought Zo (Esparza) was definitely in control of the game," said Wright.

Statistically, Esparza completed 22 of 34 passes for 274 yards, threw two touchdown passes and only one interception. For the season he has completed 62.8% of his passes for 1504 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has averaged 300 yards passing per game and spread the passes to six targets against the Mustangs. Ethan Harris led all receivers with five receptions for 130 yards and one touchdown.

Mateo Torres also caught five passes for 32 yards. Ryan Franklin and Darius Poles each caught four passes for 39 yards and 23 yards respectively, with Franklin catching a touchdown pass. Elijah Adams and Johnny Fino each caught two passes for 41 and 9 yards respectively. Jamiere Munson, led the Centaurs in rushing with 63 yards on eight carries, including a 22-yard run. Jerin Stanton rushed for 22 yards on seven carries while D.J. Powell ran for five yards on six carries.

George Laase

Culver City wide-receiver and cornerback Jerin Stanton runs back the opening kick off, giving the Centaurs great field position against Mira Costa.

Defensively, the Centaurs had two quarterback sacks, one each by Jasani Pitts and Mason Merriwether. The team had a total of seven tackles for loss and 10 passes deflected. Munson and Powell each had an interception. William Schultz led the Centaurs with nine tackles, including five solo tackles. Aaron Salas and Munson had seven tackles each, while Prince Okorie, Malik Lewis, and Pitts had five tackles each.

Last season, Culver City overwhelmed Redondo Union, 55-12, at home. Coach Wright addressed the challenge playing Sea Hawks on the road: "The challenge is really about us. Can we execute without turning the ball over? Can we execute without missing assignments? Can we be sharp and keep our penalties down? So, that's our goal. It's not really about Redondo. It's about us playing a clean football game."

"But I think we're still playing an exciting brand of football. We have some talented football players that are making plays. They may not always manufacture points but if you look at the numbers that the guys are putting up... I'm proud of our offense. And we still haven't played our best football."


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