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Football St. Anthony

CIF Football: St. Anthony Outruns Tahquitz For Dramatic Playoff Win

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

It’s no secret that St. Anthony football coach Raul Lara was going to bring his old school ground-and-pound offense to the Saints’ playoff opener on Friday. It was just a matter of whether his team would be able to stick to the strategy until the final whistle.

Even when he found his team trailing Tahquitz by five points with 6:19 left in the CIF Southern Section Division 8 opener at Clark Field, there was no doubt in Lara’s mind that he would stick to his formula to pull off the win.

“We work on our four-minute offense at practice, so when we called a timeout (players) came up to me asking, ‘Are we going to run the clock out?’” Lara said. “I’m an old school guy and running down the clock is what I’m all about. I think it’s just smart football.”

The Saints proceeded to deliver a 5:33 drive that consisted of 13 straight runs by Jojo Apisala and Elijah Lolesio-Pua. Apisala capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown to give his team a one point lead with 46 seconds remaining.

St. Anthony was able to hold on in the final seconds after recording a sack and a pass deflection on back-to-back plays before taking the field to jump around and celebrate their 35-34 win over visiting Tahquitz.

“It’s an honor to be counted on in those moments, but also give credit to my cousin Elijah Lolesio-Pua,” Apisala said. “He’s the one that puts in a lot of work and got us down to where we need to be. I was just the one to help him out at the end. He’s a hard runner and hard worker and I truly model myself after him.”

“For me, we had a drive and we needed the yardage. I just had to get those yards and a couple first downs and then let my brother finish,” Lolesio-Pua said.

Both offenses started well as the Saints put together a 63-yard opening drive that was nearly all Apisala. The junior concluded the long drive by plunging in for a 4-yard score to jump out to a quick 8-0 lead after a successful 2-pt conversion.

The Titans immediately responded with their own drive on the ground utilizing running backs David Toney and DJ Bryant. At the 7-yard line, Toney capped off the drive with a run around the outside for the score. Tahquitz elected to kick an extra point to trail 8-7, which ended up looming large much later in the game.

Tahquitz were able to hold the momentum for a bit, forcing back-to-back St. Anthony punts while capitalizing on both of their next two offensive drives. Pinned at their own 3-yard line, Tahquitz didn’t flinch as they stuck to the run game with Bryant breaking off a couple chunk plays to set up Tahquitz at the 1-yard line. They capped off their impressive 97-yard drive with a QB tush-push for the score.

After forcing a second punt, the Titans marched back down again on another Bryant that cashed in for a 59-yard touchdown to put Tahquitz up 21-8.

Much like the end of the game, the Saints’ found themselves with the ball in their hands needing a big play down 13-points with a few minutes remaining in the half. Without enough time to run the ball out, QB Adrian Perez dropped back to scan the field before dumping off a pass to Christian Martin for a catch and run first down on 3rd and 3. Perez then dropped back again, before throwing a rainbow-pass to Martin again by the front pylon for a 22-yard TD to cut the lead to 21-15 going into the half.

“I have to go out there and make the play,” said Perez of his mindset at half. “If I get limited opportunities in a heavy run game I need to make the most of the few opportunities they give me.”

Tahquitz received the second half kickoff, immediately threatening once again through the ground after beginning the drive with good field positioning. Receiver Johnny Johnson caught a bubble screen taking the ball up inside the 5-yard line before getting shoved out of bounds at the one.

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With all the momentum wearing road white, the Titans handed the ball off once again for what seemed like an easy 1-yard touchdown. However, St. Anthony senior Raymond Gomez had other plans as he lowered his shoulder at the ball carrier, miraculously popping the ball out loose before the Saints swarmed to recover the fumble at their own 10-yard line.

“We felt like we could wear them down but the key is we have to execute. We can’t miss our blocks and can’t fumble, so when we’re able to have that happen to them instead of us, it can turn the game around. I believe that was a huge play by Gomez making that hit and I think it turned the momentum a bit and gave our kids some confidence,” Lara said.

From there the Saints were able to roll the momentum into their offense as Apisala and Lolesio-Pua went back and forth carrying the ball before Apisala capped off the drive with an impressive 25-yard score to put the Saints up 22-21 in the third quarter.

The teams traded even more blows on each of their next two drives, as Tahquitz came back to put another drive together finishing in the endzone off of a huge 56-yard touchdown from Bryant once again.

The Saints’ responded with a drive of their own capped off by a 50/50 ball hauled in by Jahsiah Lolesio-Pua from Perez.

Midway through the fourth, Tahquitz would find the endzone for their last time of the night, as quarterback Daniel Mendoza faked out the defense with a run around the outside to take the lead 34-29. However, the Titans’ score left those crucial six minutes left in the game, which proved to be too much time to let the Saints’ work their ground game and finish out on top.

“Don’t take away anything from Tahquitz’s coach, he liked to run the ball down too,” said Lara. “But we gave them only 40 seconds left at the end so he had to do something that he was not comfortable with. That’s the beauty of killing the clock like that.”

The ground-and-pound run game proved to work, as St. Anthony’s found that knock-out punch on their last drive that gave the Saints’ a 35-34 win in their Division 8 playoff opener.

Apisala ended the game with a team high 129-yards rushing with two touchdowns, meanwhile Lolesio-Pua finished with 84 rushing yards. Perez threw for a 104-yards and two scores, with 49-yards through the ground.

Lara and his team will now look ahead to their rematch against St. Pius X-St Matthias in the next round of the CIF-SS playoffs. St. Anthony won their thriller against Warriors 21-14 earlier in the season, and the two will square off again next Friday at 7 p.m.

VIDEO: St. Anthony vs Tahquitz CIF Football
PHOTOS: St. Anthony vs. Tahquitz, CIF Football Playoffs
Eli Aquino
Eli Aquino is a high school student with plenty of writing and technology skills. He has a healthy knowledge and passion for sports and looks to take on journalism as a future career.