Long Beach Poly’s championship football season came to an end in a predictably thrilling nailbiter against Serra on Saturday night in Gardena. The Jackrabbits scored a go-ahead touchdown for their first lead of the game with just over three minutes remaining, but Serra struck back with a 75-yard touchdown with 2:54 left in the game. Poly had a chance to win it at the end but fell short, 21-17.
“We squandered opportunities, and they made some really good plays,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “This is a hell of a team—they’re hurting right now, but they’re a championship team. They won 10 games in a row, they came back from 1-3 to win a championship. Our kids have nothing to hang their heads about.”
As true as that is, there’s no doubt that Saturday’s game will be hard for Poly to get over. The Jackrabbits had two red zone trips result in no points, and another come up short with a field goal. Poly’s defense played great for most of the game, but gave up a go-ahead 75-yard score at the worst possible moment.
“We just didn’t make the plays,” said Barbee. “We had our opportunities and we didn’t convert.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Serra took a lead early in the second as Texas-bound QB Maalik Murphy found Matthew Coleman for a seven-yard score. The Jackrabbits pounded the ball on the ensuing drive as Devin Samples ripped off some big runs, and then Shea Kuykendall cashed it in with a dime to Jason Robinson Jr to tie the game.
After Poly’s defense stopped Serra short on a first-and-goal red zone opportunity, with Serra ultimately missing a field goal, the Jackrabbits had a chance to take a lead into halftime. They went from their own 20 to the Serra five in three minutes, but had a receiver tackled short of the goal line with the clock running. Although it looked like the receiver had gotten a first down, no measurement was taken and with the clock winding down and fourth down on the box, Kuykendall was forced to snap it and try to make a play—he couldn’t connect in the end zone and the half ended with no points for Poly.
Serra scored first in the second half to take a 14-7 on a 37-yard connection from Murphy to Cincere Rhaney. Poly followed that with another strong drive into the Serra red zone, but settled for a field goal on fourth and goal that cut the lead to 14-10. The Poly defense held Serra to a three-and-out and then the Jackrabbits drove to the Serra eight, but the Cavaliers intercepted a ball in the end zone.
Poly’s defense kept pounding on Serra. After not getting any pressure on Murphy in the teams’ first meeting this season, they got three sacks Saturday with Jalen Johnson, Donovan Poe, and Dominic Lolesio getting to him. The Jackrabbits were holding the Cavaliers offense in check, but couldn’t answer until late in the game.
Finally, after another big sack of Murphy and a bad Serra punt, Poly took over at the Serra 35 and motored downfield with runs by Samples, and a 20-yard connection between Kuykendall and Tyson Bordeaux. That set up a 12-yard touchdown from Kuykendall to Titus Bordeaoux that sent the packed Poly stands into a frenzy, and put the Jackrabbits on top 21-17 with 3:23 left in the game.
Given Poly’s defensive dominance to that point, the game looked to be won—Serra had gone three-and-out on their last two possessions, with Poly sacks pushing them back each time. But Poly/Serra games never end how you expect them to, and this one didn’t either.
The Jackrabbits’ defensive strategy of sitting in man coverage with their talented DBs and blitzing to get pressure on Murphy worked all game. They held Serra to 142 passing yards at that point in the game, as the DBs made plays and the linemen and linebackers were consistently giving chase to Murphy.
The strategy backfired late in the game, though, with a call likely to be chewed over on the Eastside for the entire offseason. Poly stayed in a man look with one safety, and Serra made them pay. Two plays after Poly’s go-ahead touchdown, Serra receiver Troy Crozier ran a double-move route and lost the Poly DB; the Poly rush didn’t get to Murphy in time and he put the ball up to Crozier. With no help over the top, he was able to get loose for a 75-yard touchdown, putting Serra back on top, 21-17, with 2:54 left in the game.
Incredibly, Poly still had a shot. Sophomore safety Timmy Tuiagamoa ran the ensuing kickoff back to the Serra 32, and Poly was back in business, especially after a first down and then a Devin Samples run looked like it was going to put Poly on the Serra 15. Instead, a holding call moved them back 10 yards, and the Jackrabbits couldn’t recover.
Poly finishes the season at 11-4 overall and will return the bulk of their starters on both sides of the ball for 2022. It was a wild an emotional year that saw them play 19 games including the Spring season where they went 4-0, as well as the championship campaign in the Fall.