Bay League Elite teams face off on Friday

Centaurs and Sea Kings, oh my! This Friday afternoon, the Bay League Football Championship will once again be on the line between visiting Culver City High, the defending Champions, and home-crowd favored Palos Verdes High, the Bay League title holder the previous nine seasons. Last season's thrilling 42-28 Centaur victory was decided in the final minutes of the game. Both programs have quickly turned this series into must-see CIF football.

"Our last couple of games we've had against Palos Verdes have been dogfights... and they've been entertaining games. We've developed quite a rivalry and we're excited to go down to their place and play them," said Centaur's head coach Jahmal Wright in a telephone interview this week. "We're the defending Bay League Champions. In 2019 we won the Ocean League and in 2020 we won the Bay League. So, we want to make it three in a row."

The Centaurs are currently 3-0 in league this season after having dispatched Peninsula High at home last Friday night, 35-23, at Jerry Chabola Stadium during Senior Night. The win gives Culver City a perfect 7-0 league record since they transferred into the more competitive Bay League last season. Yet, Palos Verdes sports an unprecedented record in Bay League Football over the past decade.

The Sea Kings have an astounding 50-2 league record since 2011, with their only defeats coming against Mira Costa High in 2016 and Culver City this past April as the 2020 season was delayed due to COVID protocols. Culver City (3-0) and Palos Verdes (2-0) are followed in the league standings by Peninsula (2-1), and Mira Costa (1-2). Redondo Union (0-3) and Santa Monica High (0-1) are still winless in league play.

Last Friday's physically fought win over Peninsula was marred by dozens of penalties that interrupted any chance of fluidity being directed from either sideline. The Centaurs placed themselves directly behind the eight ball from the opening whistle by turning the ball over on their first three offensive drives. The three turnovers turned into a 17-0 Panthers lead with 5:15 left in the first quarter.

Peninsula scored on a fumble recovery for a touchdown on Culver City's first offensive play from scrimmage to lead 7-0 at 9:25 of the first quarter. Two plays later the Panthers led 14-0 on a pick-six interception with 8:16 on the clock. Four plays later the Centaurs fumbled the ball short of midfield. The Panthers recovered the ball and returned it to the 10-yard line. A three-touchdown deficit seemed imminent for Culver City.

But the defense responded immediately, denying the Panthers the endzone and minimizing the damage to a 22-yard field goal. That defensive stand stabilized the Centaurs, allowing them to reel off 35 unanswered points leading into the first three minutes of the third quarter. The defense's firm lockdown of Peninsula's attack allowed Culver City's lethal offense to regain its composure and start putting the expected points on the scoreboard.

Quarterback Alonzo Esparza started the comeback with a 36-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mateo Torres, who made a deft spin move after a sideline snare at the 10-yard line and waltzed into the endzone for Culver City's first score at 4:05. Kicker Diego Caldera converted the first of all five of his successful extra-point attempts, giving him 17 of 18 successful conversions for the season.

After forcing Peninsula to punt Esparza hooked up with wide receiver Elijah Adams for a 32-yard scoring pass, finishing up a 58-yard drive. The lead was cut to 17-14 with 23 seconds remaining in the first quarter as the momentum had completely swung in the Centaurs' direction. Culver City took their first lead at 7:32 in the second quarter on the second touchdown pass of the game from Esparza to Torres, this time for an untouched 24-yard touchdown. The Centaurs would never trail again as they took a 21-17 lead into halftime.

The Centaurs virtually sewed the game up with two highlight-reel plays to start the second half. They increased their lead to 28-17 in sixteen seconds as kick returner Darius Poles scorched the Panthers kickoff team with an 82-yard dash down the left sideline. "Darius is an explosive kick returner and receiver for us," said Wright.

"Earlier in the game he had a forty-yard return," Wright said. "They kicked the ball to him again and he returned it for 82 yards for the score. It looked like Peninsula was trying to kick it short and pin us on the sideline. But Darius was able to use his speed and make a play."

On Peninsula's next possession, C.J. Robinson stepped in front of a downfield pass and returned it 40 yards, barreling a number of defenders into the endzone for a pick-six touchdown. "It was third-and-long when they threw the ball to our weakside. Our outside linebacker and strong safety Prince Okorie deflected the ball and our cornerback, Robinson picked the pass off and ran it in for a touchdown," said Wright.

"We had a rhythm there for a moment in the second quarter but thank goodness for the kickoff return and that interception return in the third quarter. We didn't really establish a rhythm in the second half." The 35-17 lead lasted until the Panthers scored their final touchdown, an 18-yard pass with 5:27 remaining in the game.

Statistically, Esparza completed 13-24 passes for 175 yards, three touchdowns, but also he threw three interceptions. Esparza has 16 total touchdowns and 12 interceptions on the season. Jerin Stanton led all rushers with eight carries for 60 yards. D.J. Powell had 39 yards on four carries and Jamiere Munson had 16 yards on seven carries.

Defensively, Jasani Pitts led the team with 12 tackles, including seven solo tackles, and one tackle for loss in only three quarters of action. Prince Okorie and William Schultz each had 10 tackles, including seven and eight solo tackles respectively. Aaron Salas, Connor Panapa, and Bryce Williams each had six tackles. Mason Merriwether had two quarterback sacks, while Pitts, Williams, Charlie Butler and Keenan Carter had one quarterback sack each.

"It was tough to get a rhythm offensively in the pass game." Said Wright. "But we were able to manufacture points and score the best way we could. We were able to put together some positive plays and make some good things happen."

Palos Verdes and Culver City have similar approaches to their scheduling as they both prepare their respective teams to win the league title, as well as planning for the post-season CIF Playoffs. The Centaurs won a CIF Championship in 2018 while the Sea Kings won CIF titles in 2012 and 2014. Both teams' pre-league schedules are stacked with elite programs to help elevate their game.

The Sea Kings offense is based predominantly on controlling the ball and clock with their rushing game. They are averaging 135.5 yards per game in league on the ground compared to Culver City's 99.3 yards per game rushing. The Centaurs feature their aerial attack on offense with an average of 250.3 yards per game in league. Palos Verdes has used their passing game sparingly, completing five of 10 passes for 67 yards in two games. Regardless of the stats, the football rivalry between Palos Verdes and Culver City is off to a competitively wonderful start.


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