It’s been a year of tragedy and triumph for the Long Beach Poly football team. After Saturday night’s CIF Southern Section Division 4 championship game at St. Francis, it’s a golden year, too. The Jackrabbits are playing this season in memory of longtime assistant coach Keith “Slice” Thompson, whose passing a little more than a year ago left a big hole in the Poly community. The Jackrabbits are playing in memory of parents and other loved ones lost over the last year by players and coaches, as well.
Saturday night, they gifted their loved ones, their community, and each other a performance to remember with a dominant win over the Golden Knights, 38-7.
It’s the Jackrabbits’ 20th CIF-SS football championship (first since 2012) and 127th title across all sports in school history.
“There’s a lot of love on this field, a lot of love for each other,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “We talked about it today. These kids know they’re not only representing Poly but representing all of Long Beach. I could not be more proud of all these guys.”
Barbee and his assistant coaches staked their gameplan on one central premise: that they’d be able to stop St. Francis’ potent rushing attack, and that they’d be able to run the ball themselves. Linemen Tyson Ruffins, Wendell “Wowo” Moe, Nathan Samoa, Ropati Eneliko, Jeremiah Filipo, and tight end Malik Brown made their coaches look very smart in the championship game. They blew apart the Golden Knights front and allowed the team to rush for 388 yards on 6.7 yards per carry. Junior back Devin Samples led the way with 38 carries for 220 yards and three scores, while Joshua “Noodles” Cason added 14 carries for 133 yards and a score, and QB Shea Kuykendall ran for another 31 yards.
“I could never ask for more than them,” said Samples of his line. “I love those guys, man. I love them.”
It was hard not to love the running lanes available for the Poly backs, but they did their part too, and it was obvious early in the game as Samples was dragging defenders forward with him that the Knights had their work cut out for them.
“When (Samples) was punching through the line and dragging dudes with him, I’m like we’re going to run it all over them,” said Moe.
That’s exactly what Poly did. They recovered a fumble knocked out by Timmy Tuiagamoa on the opening drive, and scooped up by Brown. On the next drive. Samples carried it four times and punched it in for a score. The Knights quickly answered thanks to a 56 yard pass that set up a 20-yard score to tie it. Poly’s next drive ended in an interception from Kuykendall, one of only two incompletions he threw on the night (16/18 143 yards). But the Poly defense was able to hold the Knights scoreless, and they were dialed in for the rest of the game.
Poly’s next four drives were all championship caliber. On the first, they went 84 yards in four and a half minutes in 12 plays, with Samples punching it in. The next drive was 70 yards in four minutes on 10 plays, ending again in a Samples TD. They opened the second half with a long drive that ended in a field goal to make it 24-7, then added another score on their next drive, a five-minute, 98-yard drive that ended on a Cason TD that made it 31-7 midway through the third quarter. Poly added a final score late in the game on a run by reserve Karon Green.
As the offense was dominating, the defense was doing the same. They held St. Francis to just 20 yards rushing, completely shutting down San Diego State commit Max Garrison (eight carries, 29 yards). The Poly defense maintained its intensity for the entire game, only allowing two conversions on third or fourth down attempts, in ten tries by the Golden Knights.
Poly’s defense has only allowed 10 points over its last three playoff games, a remarkable level of focus that senior Donovan Poe said came through hard work.
“When we see the other team relax, we don’t relax anymore,” he said. Asked what caused the change, he smiled. “Coach Tyae (Burford) making us run. He ran us until we got rid of that habit. This win means everything, this is everything to me. This is why I wanted to play for Poly.”
Senior defensive captain Jalen Johnson said he knew his team was going to win early in the second half, when he saw players on the other side of the ball tapping out. It’s something the Poly defense has seen throughout these playoffs as they’ve shut opponents down, including a very well-coached St. Francis team.
“You can see they’re slow coming out of the huddle, they’re not firing off the ball, it’s in their facial expressions that they really don’t want to be here anymore,” he said. “It’s a great feeling–it makes us hungrier. Our coaches always tell us, all gas no brakes.”
Sophomore linebacker/running back Noodles Cason had a game to remember, with a team-high six tackles to go along with 133 yards rushing and a score.
“I just like being a guy, I like being a guy on both sides of the ball,” he said. “We started 1-3, nobody thought we could do this. I was praying for this game, I talked to coach Papa Don (Norford) and he was getting me ready for this, mentally and spiritually.”
The Jackrabbits will get a chance to continue this special season as they enter the CIF State playoffs next week, with the draw to be announced Sunday afternoon–we’ll post it live on The 562 Twitter. If Poly wins this week’s CIF State Southern California regional championship they’d advance to a State Final next week, looking to win the school’s first football state title since 1919.
VIDEO: Long Beach Poly vs. St. Francis, CIF Football Championship
PHOTOS: Long Beach Poly vs St. Francis, CIF-SS Football Championship