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Football Long Beach Poly

CIF Football: Long Beach Poly Wins Slugfest With Vista Murrieta

The562’s coverage of football in 2023-24 is sponsored in part by the MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center Foundation and Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital Foundation

The562’s coverage of Long Beach Poly is sponsored by Bryson Financial.

It would have been easy, and understandable, for the Long Beach Poly football team to capitulate in their CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoff opener at home against Vista Murrieta. The Jackrabbits’ leader, Darius Curry, had an uncharacteristic game with three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. There were penalty flags that overturned touchdowns. And, most concerning of all, there was a serious injury to senior receiver Charles Clinton, who left the field in an ambulance after going to the turf head-first.

But the Jackrabbits had enough poise and enough leadership in its senior class to bounce back, digging deep to win a wild game, 30-21.

Poly (10-1) will travel to Servite for the Division 2 quarterfinals next Friday.

“I’m proud of them,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “This sport is very hard–when you have uncertain injuries and then you have to restart the game. We always talk about how much we love each other–we do. We all knew Charles wanted us to finish that game, we have to be able to control our emotions and play for him. That’s something we’ve tried to do the whole year is play under control, and I thought we did that in a very physical game.”

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It was the most complete performance by Poly’s defense all year as they held the Broncos to one touchdown, and just over 130 yards of total offense.

“The whole defensive staff had an unbelievable week of preparation,” said Barbee. “We were able to stop their two receivers and shut down their running game. It was never ‘the sky is falling’ even having to pick the offense up. Those plays can be disheartening for a defense but you didn’t hear one word–they ran out there and said, ‘we got you offense, we got you.’ As a head coach, seeing that senior leadership come through is great.”

The night started with a kickoff return for a touchdown by sophomore star Kamarie Smith, but it was called back on a holding penalty in an early indication of the emotional see-saw that Poly would spend the game perched on. The Broncos ended up striking first after a pair of Poly drives stalled. Vista took a 7-0 lead on a touchdown pass from Bryson Beaver to Brody Guinn that saw Guinn toe tap in the back corner of the end zone for a beautiful score with 4:23 left in the first quarter.

The Jackrabbits responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive that spanned four minutes and eight plays, as Colin Powell’s 41-yard run set them up inside the red zone, and then Curry found Clinton to tie the game up. After the Poly defense forced a Vista Murrieta three-and-out, the Jackrabbits got the ball back and looked to take a lead. Instead, Curry was picked off–disaster appeared to be averted when receiver Luke Buggs punched the ball out during the interception return and fell on it. But on the very next play, Curry was intercepted again, and this time it went for a touchdown that put Poly down 14-7.

The Jackrabbits went on a long drive after that, but came up short and settled for a 37-yard field goal by Jonas Mendoza. After the defense held the Broncos on the ensuing drive, Poly got the ball on their own 10 yard line with 4:04 left in the half, down by four.

Curry converted on third and eight, third and seven, fourth and 10, and third and four on the drive, which ended up being a 16-play 90 yard touchdown drive capped by a three-yard scoring pass to Kamarie Smith.

But as impressive as those numbers are, they don’t tell the story. Clinton was injured with 50 seconds remaining in the half, after taking a hit from a Broncos player and landing awkwardly on the turf. The game stopped for a half hour as paramedics attended to Clinton, ultimately taking him to the hospital.

After being worried about their teammate and reminded of the fragile nature of football, the Poly team had to find a way to dig deep and restart things to play the last 50 seconds of the half. Josh “Noodles” Cason delivered an emotional speech to his teammates firing them up, and senior MJ Rivas walked up and down the sideline before the game restarted, demanding more energy and enthusiasm.

“We have a standard and we’re not going to give that up,” said Rivas. “The coaches put it in our hands–we had to get excited and we had to control our aggression.”

They did a great job of staying under control, as Curry converted with a 16-yard completion to Malau’ulu on 4th and 10, then hit Smith for a touchdown with just seconds on the clock. That gave Poly a 17-14 halftime lead.

After stopping Vista Murrieta to start the second half, the Poly offense took control of the game thanks to some hard running by Powell and freshman Ben Harris, who set up a Curry rushing touchdown that made it 24-14. It looked like Poly had control of the game, but a second Curry interception for a touchdown late in the third quarter cut the lead to 24-21.

The Jackrabbits stayed calm on the sideline as their quarterback struggled, with the defense picking him up emotionally.

“We told Darius ‘we got you,’’ said linebacker Dylan Williams. “We’ll get it done. And we did because we got our boys’ back. We’re not out here fighting each other, we’ve got each other’s backs.”

Curry bounced back as well, leading a 70-yard touchdown drive that included a 43-yard strike to Smith, setting up a Powell three-yard touchdown plunge that made it 30-21 Poly.

The Jackrabbit defense continued to stifle the Broncos after that, with Rivas getting a sack and a pass breakup, and Troy Tamasoa getting a sack as well.

“It all starts with how we practice,” said Rivas. “Little reps count in practice, because one play can mess it all up. With me being a senior, this playoffs hits a little bit different. So we wanted to stay locked in tonight.”

Cameron Gherardi’s interception all but ended the game, and Poly’s offense was able to run the clock out after getting the ball with 4:23 left in the game.

Curry finished 37/40 for 293 yards and three total touchdowns along with the three interceptions. Malau’ulu had eight catches for 77 yards, and Poly’s backs (Cason, Powell, and Harris) joined with Curry to gain 171 yards. 

The Jackrabbits will travel to Servite next week–we’ll have previews, features, and live coverage.

VIDEO: Long Beach Poly vs Vista Murrieta CIF Football
PHOTOS: Long Beach Poly vs Vista Murrieta CIF Football
Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.