Before Long Beach Poly’s football game against Serra on Friday night, Jackrabbits coach Stephen Barbee read his team a poem. The Dash poem is about the mark in between the years on a tombstone, a flat line between a person’s birth and death that represents their life. He asked his team what their dash was about, what they wanted their life to represent. And he asked them to consider the meaning of an abbreviated football season during a global pandemic.
It was an emotional meeting. Several of the Jackrabbits players have lost parents or grandparents during the COVID-19 shutdown began, 364 days before Friday’s game at Cabrillo. The funeral for one of the players’ fathers was held on the day of the game. And the Jackrabbit team is still grieving as a family for the loss of beloved assistant coach Keith “Slice” Thompson, wearing decals in his honor as they took the field for the first time in 16 months. Barbee had trouble putting into words what his team was feeling.
“These kids inspire me,” he said. “They put in work every day, they didn’t take days off, even when stuff is happening at their house that would honestly put most people to their knees. They’re showing up at practice that same day saying, ‘Coach, I need to work, I need to be here with my brothers.’”
Perhaps given all of that, it’s no surprise that the Jackrabbits persevered in a tough battle against Serra, pulling out a thrilling 27-21 victory in overtime to open the season.
“Nobody outside of Long Beach gave us a shot tonight,” said Barbee. “We know what type of team we have. This is a special group.”
Poly outgained Serra 374 yards to 252 and held the ball for 29:28 to Serra’s 18:32, with a first downs advantage of 25-13. Still, at the end of a year where nothing has been easy, nothing was easy on Friday as Serra battled. The Jackrabbits won it in overtime thanks to a defensive stand and a five-yard touchdown by sophomore Devin Samples, capping a night where he had 26 carries for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was a stretch play and I was following my fullback Uiti Moe, he led me right into the end zone,” said Samples.
“Devin Samples is the real deal,” said Barbee. “He’s going to make a lot of noise for us.”
The game opened well enough for Poly with a defensive stand, but a tipped pass on the Jackrabbits’ first drive was returned for a touchdown by Rodrick Pleasant of Serra. Poly responded with a nine-play drive of all runs, pounding 65 yards down the field with Samples and Jaden Bridges going back and forth to set up a one-yard touchdown by linebacker/fullback Jeremiah Fort.
Early in the second Poly took its first lead on Samples’ first score of the game, a lead they held until midway through the third quarter, when another interception set Serra up with a short porch and Texas commit Maalik Murphy hit Darrian Anderson for a score to tie it at 14. The Cavaliers took a 21-14 lead with 8:39 left in the game on Murphy’s second touchdown pass of the night, but Poly responded right away.
Quarterback Shea Kuykendall had his best drive of the night, hitting three different receivers and then taking the ball into the end zone himself to tie it at 21.
Both teams had chances to win it in regulation but a Poly interception thrown into the end zone sent the teams into overtime. There, Poly’s defense one again proved itself, as San Jose State signee Bryun Parham had a huge sack, and La’mar Black came up with an interception. That set up Poly’s offense to do what it was doing best; get Samples behind the Jackrabbits’ big offensive line and let them go to work. Five plays later, he punched it in for the win.
Barbee and Samples both rightly credited Poly’s line of Wendell Moe, Brandon Pati, Justin Mataia, Tyson Ruffins, Michael Fesili, and Nathan Samoa for paving the way. Poly’s offense totaled 227 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. The Jackrabbits defense also consistently frustrated Murphy, with Parham, Jalen Johnson, Uiti Moe, and Donovan Poe all notching sacks. Black and Torion White both had interceptions as well.
Parham is one of a rare few Division 1 signed seniors playing football in Southern California this Spring, along with teammate Keyonta Lanier. Both said that the pride of representing their school was too great to miss out on.
“I feel great man, it’s a blessing to be able to be out here,” said Parham. “This is exactly what I came out for. To battle, to fight with my brothers.”
Long Beach Poly (1-0) will host Lakewood at Cabrillo next Friday night at 7 p.m.