All Ball Sports: Mira Costa football makes history in Battle of the Nic(k)os
By Paul Teetor
The Mira Costa High School football team completed the greatest comeback since Napoleon was sacked at the Battle of Waterloo with a 21-14 victory over arch-rival Redondo Friday night.
Once left for dead with an 0-7 record, the Mustangs not only finished the regular season with three straight victories, but snuck into third place in the Bay League final standings with a 3-2 league record.
Even more improbably, they now get to play in the post-season playoffs by virtue of claiming the last of the Bay League’s three automatic bids to the CIF playoffs. And they accomplished all this in front of a raucous, charged-up, full-house Homecoming crowd at a rockin’ Waller Stadium.
The Mustangs and the Sea Hawks combined to stage an epic battle that will long live on in the fan’s memories. After Costa had established clear dominance via a 14-0 lead near the end of the third quarter, Redondo roared back to level the score at 14-14 within a span of 68 seconds.
But once again Mira Costa showed its great resilience and fortitude with one more comeback play that delivered the season-saving victory, and propelled the Mustangs into the playoffs.
Costa will now play at Yucaipa Friday night in the Division 6 first round playoffs. From here on out it’s all gravy for a team that never, ever expected to make the playoffs after its horrendous start.
Even Costa coach Don Morrow marveled at his team’s amazing accomplishment in just making it into the playoffs.
“They’ve been through a lot this year,” Morrow said of his team. “They didn’t get any wins at all for seven weeks. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking: Really? Are they really gonna take us?”
Redondo, meanwhile, finished 6-4 in the regular season with a 2-3 Bay League record. They missed out on the automatic entry that would have been theirs had they beaten Costa, but they petitioned for an at-large spot in the playoffs and will now play at Bishop Diego Friday night in the Division 7 playoffs.
Mira Costa’s win didn’t come easy. The first three quarters of this rivalry game were a defensive slug fest, with Costa holding a 7-0 lead at halftime that looked like that might be the extent of the scoring.
For Redondo, quarterback Niko London was back after missing two straight games with a concussion. But he was rusty in trying to connect with his receivers, and his best receiver, Nate Stiveson, was out with an injury.
A pumped-up Mira Costa defense got the Mustangs off to a quick start by forcing Redondo to punt after a three-and-out opening series.
Starting at the 50-yard line, Costa quickly drove to a first and goal at the Redondo nine-yard line, aided greatly by a pass interference call that advanced the ball some 20 yards.
The Mustangs were also employing a combination of passes from junior quarterback Nico De La Cruz – this had to be the first time both starting quarterbacks in a game were named Nico, even if one spells it with a “k” – and straight ahead rushes by hard charging Matt Miller.
When Nico De Sisto – yet another Nico on the field – kicked the extra point, Mira Costa had a quick 7-0 lead and appeared headed for an early knockout.
When the Sea Hawks got the ball back, they began using a very unusual tactic: alternating London and wide receiver Cadence Turner at quarterback. Sometimes Turner would get a direct snap in the wildcat formation, and sometimes London would get the snap 7 feet from center in the shotgun formation.
But rather than confusing the Mustangs, the alternating quarterbacks strategy prevented the Sea Hawks from establishing any kind of rhythm on offense, and they did not score in the first half.
The only glimmer of real offense came on a long pass from London to wide receiver Max Asmus. But Costa’s Reese Leonard – a star receiver who does double duty as a defensive back – stuck his hand out and broke up the pass.
Later in the first half the Mustangs went for it on fourth and short, but Redondo stuffed them at the line of scrimmage and Redondo took over on its own four-yard line.
On the first play from scrimmage, Max Ausmus burst past the secondary and was wide open with the closest DB five yards behind him. The pass from London looked like a sure touchdown, but he was unable to haul the football in and the play went down as another near miss.
The half ended with Costa clinging to a 7-0 lead, and Redondo unable to generate much of an offense against a fired-up Mustang defense, well aware that a win would wipe out all the anguish of the 0-7 start and vault them into the playoffs.
Costa doubled its lead up to 14-0 midway through the third quarter on a trick play: De La Cruz handed the ball to receiver Reese Leonard, who then threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver Charlie O’Connor.
Prior to the play, Redondo Coach Keith Ellison called a timeout that had Morrow worried about sticking with the call in the event Redondo had somehow sniffed out the gadget play.
“We practice that every week,” Morrow said. “But we’ve never run it. We all thought it’s such a unique play that we’re gonna stay with it.”
When it worked for a 14-0 lead, the crowd erupted with victory cheers and chants. But they turned out to be premature.
At the end of the third quarter, Redondo had a fourth and goal. They called a timeout to make sure they got this crucial play right, and on fourth down London rolled left and found Cadence Turner in the end zone for a touchdown pass.
Just 68 seconds later, the Sea Hawks used a double handoff to receiver Bo Ausmus, whose 33-yard rushing touchdown at the 11:46 mark of the fourth tied the score at 14-all.
“We were able to run some misdirections,” Ellison said. “The reverse got ’em, double handoffs. We were struggling and we were just finding ways to put the ball in the hands of some of our playmakers.”
With the score tied 14-14, both teams girded for a stretch run that would decide the game — and so much more.
That’s when Costa’s David Burga-Donovan stepped up and made the big play the Mustangs desperately needed for one more comeback. Fielding the kickoff, he ripped off a long return that got Costa past midfield. They ran off eight straight running plays to get the ball down to Redondo’s 3-yard line.
“The field position that they got, they got into their big set and just kind of ran it at us,” Ellison said. “We’re a little undersized and they took advantage of that.”
De La Cruz completed a 3-yard touchdown pass to running back Matt Miller to put the Mustangs back in front at 21-14 with 6:36 left.
De La Cruz wasn’t great on the night, but he was just good enough to get the Mustangs the desperately needed win: he finished 14 of 25 for 164 yards with two interceptions.
The Sea Hawks’ last drive stalled on the Mira Costa 23-yard line. Facing fourth-and-17, London was hit as he threw by Mira Costa defensive lineman Thomas Field to turn the ball over on downs with 1:36 to play.
“I just knew that the team needed a play,” Field said. “It means everything. I feel so great right now. I didn’t want it to be our last game.”
Earlier in the drive, on the Mira Costa 18, an early snap caught London off guard and resulted in a loss of 5 yards.
“There was a series of plays on those last two drives that we had a chance to tie it up, had a chance to maybe take the lead and we didn’t do well enough,” Ellison said. “Those last four plays were all just not very good.”
Three plays later, a Mustangs run for a first down sealed the victory.
Now it’s on to the playoffs, and another chance for the Mustangs to make history.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor. ER