All Ball Sports: Mira Costa’s miracle season, Redondo faces reality
by Paul Teetor
Mira Costa Football Living a Dream
Mira Costa’s incredible, fantastic and now officially unbelievable football season will continue for at least one more week.
After being left for dead with an 0-7 record to start the season, the Mustangs have rebounded with five straight victories – the last two in the playoffs — and now are one game away from playing for a SS CIF Division 6 title.
You can’t make this stuff up.
If a Hollywood screenwriter turned in this script it would immediately be rejected, and he would be kicked off the studio lot before he could get his parking validation.
You can just hear the reaction: Not credible! Not rooted in reality! Imagination run completely amok!
But it was all true after Friday night’s 45-27 upset win over second-seeded Cypress in front of another raucous full house at Waller Stadium that still can’t quite believe what they’re seeing is really happening.
Indeed, it feels like the Mustangs have played two entirely separate and distinct seasons.
The first one consisted of seven games against brutal competition. At one point they played three consecutive games against teams ranked in the top 25 by the Los Angeles Times – St. Francis, Damien and San Juan Hills.
Throw in a heartbreaking 14-13 Bay League loss to Culver City, a tough 9-7 loss to traditional Bay League powerhouse Palos Verdes – which ended its regular season undefeated but has now been knocked out of the playoffs – and you can see how the Mira Costa players could have easily gotten discouraged and given up on the season when the record reached a depressing low point at 0-7.
But led by Coach Don Morrow they found the persistence, the resilience and a deep reservoir of Mustang pride to keep fighting and to finally notch a 28-21 win over Santa Monica.
That single breakthrough win opened the floodgates wide: they then racked up a 35-15 win over Peninsula and suddenly – out of seemingly nowhere – they had a chance to get the Bay League’s third automatic playoff bid if they could knock off archrival Redondo in their annual regular season finale game.
In an epic game that will long be remembered by the Mustang fans who filled Waller Stadium to watch their team fight for a shot at redemption, they jumped out to a 14-0 lead over the Sea Hawks, gave it all back as they let Redondo tie them at 14-14, and found one final push to beat the Sea Hawks 21-14.
So they got the automatic bid despite having a 3-7 record. Not many 3-7 teams make it into the playoffs, but Mira Costa did – and they were determined to make the most of it.
As they gained momentum, their two best players – junior quarterback Nico De La Cruz and senior wide receiver Reese Leonard – found their groove and started to dominate games.
It’s rare that a wide receiver is a team’s best player and has an outsized effect on the game, but that’s been the case all season with Leonard.
Of course, it helps that he’s also Costa’s best defensive back and therefore is in the game on almost every play, offense and defense.
They pulled off a mild upset in their first-round playoff game against Yucaipa as Leonard led the way with both an interception and a touchdown reception.
Then Costa was faced with the tall task of trying to stop the second seeded Cypress team that had won five of its last six games.
But the Mustangs came into Waller Stadium having won four straight themselves, and all that early season experience against bigger and better teams paid off big-time Friday night.
Leonard had one of the greatest games, statistically speaking, of any player in Mira Costa history to lead the upset over Cypress.
He caught 14 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns to go with a pair of third-quarter interceptions to lead the Mustangs.
“We knew the defense we were going up against, we knew we could take advantage of those corners,” Leonard said. “We knew Day 1 of this week we were going to go after them and just attack.”
Leonard had 162 of his receiving yards and both of his touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the Mustangs clinging to a 28-21 lead.
“He was phenomenal,” Mira Costa coach Morrow said of Leonard. “A one-handed catch over here, a couple interceptions, just really stepped up. Unbelievable.”
Cypress was forced to punt after a three-and-out on the opening possession of the third quarter. Mira Costa then established dominance in the trenches culminated by a 6-yard TD run by freshman AJ McBean, who emerged in the second half of the season to give Costa a running game to balance out the passing game of De La Cruz and Leonard.
On the second play of the Centurions’ next drive, Leonard dove for an interception and came up with the ball on quarterback Aidan Houston’s throw to the Cypress 42-yard line.
De La Cruz, who threw five touchdowns to three different receivers, needed just two plays to find receiver Luke Meeker for a 27-yard score.
“De La Cruz has been playing the last few weeks at a really high level,” Morrow said. “I think he might have lost his confidence for a little while there earlier in the season.”
De La Cruz completed 26 of 39 passes for 400 yards, including a pair of touchdowns to receiver Charlie O’Connor. O’Connor’s emergence over the second half of the season has also been a big part of the Mustang revival. Now defenses can’t focus exclusively on always doubling up on Leonard.
De La Cruz said the balance helps “open up the passing game” for all of his receivers. He also was sacked just once despite the absence of left tackle Michael Sultemeier, who is expected to return for next week’s game.
“Reese is just one of those guys I can put all my trust in and I don’t have to worry if he’s going to come down with it or not,” De La Cruz said. “It helped so much that Charlie last week had three touchdowns, which helped Reese I think this week.”
With 1:52 left in the third period, Leonard leaped and wrestled away yet another interception on Houston’s fourth throw of the next drive to put a stranglehold on the game.
“I wasn’t really expecting the second one,” Leonard said. “But the first one, I baited him into it and it was a gimme.”
Mira Costa (5-7) will travel to Murrieta Mesa (6-6) for next week’s semifinals. This season has already been a triumph of the spirit. Now we’ll see if they can go all the way and write the perfect ending to an unbelievable season.
Redondo Shut Out to end Its Season
While Costa was thrilling its home crowd by extending a season that had started so badly, Redondo was disappointing its home crowd by ending a season that had started so well.
Redondo, which was 5-1 at one point early in the season, was shut out 16-0 by El Dorado in a CIF Southern Section Division 7 quarterfinal to end its season.
“We just couldn’t get it going offensively,” Redondo coach Keith Ellison said.
Redondo (7-5) had garnered an at-large playoff berth following a fourth-place finish in the Bay League, then delivered a double-overtime first-round playoff victory last week at Bishop Diego.
With the game scoreless at the start of the second quarter, Redondo’s Ezequiel Johnson came up with an interception in traffic. Redondo drove to the El Dorado 16, but lost a fumble in the red zone recovered by Charlie Murillo.
Trailing only 6-0 at halftime, Redondo’s Cadence Turner opened the second half with a 49-yard kickoff return to give Redondo the ball in El Dorado territory, but the offense stalled out and turned the ball over on downs.
Redondo also suffered two fourth-quarter fumbles that stymied two more scoring opportunities, including one at the El Dorado 5.
“It was close throughout the game, and we had chances to put pressure on them, but we did not do that,” Ellison said. “We didn’t do enough to win the game.”
Ellison praised his team for standing its ground against El Dorado’s size advantage.
“We played physical. They are a bigger team, but we played very physically,” Ellison said. “On that last scoring drive, you can see we just could not keep it up. We just took too much punishment throughout the game.”
Redondo quarterback Nicholas London completed 16 of 36 passes for 111 yards.
While the shutout loss was a tough ending to a once-promising season, Redondo did make back-to-back quarter finals appearances in Ellison’s first two seasons as coach.
“I’m proud of this team and how far we’ve come,” Ellison said. “We are taking steps in the right direction. I just wish we were playing for another week because I really like this group.”
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