All Ball Sports: The Mira Costa Mustangs Magic Show returns to Waller Stadium

Fusion Academy in Hermosa Beach hosted a Letter of Intent signing ceremony for Savannah Standage last week. Standage will play beach volleyball for Pepperdine University next year, under coach Marcio Sicoli. Standage has been a member of MB Sand Beach Volleyball Club, and Elite Beach Volleyball Club, and earned her AAA rating when she was 14. She and partner Natalie Myskowski won the 2021 CBVA Manhattan Beach Open. Photo by Sterling Standage

Senior quarterback Casey Pavlick, and junior fullback Matt Kraskousas have led the Mustangs on a five-game winning streak. They face St. Pius X-St. Matthias in the CIF playoffs semi finals on Friday at Waller Stadium. Photos by Ray Vidal

by Paul Teetor

There’s something magical, even miraculous, going on with the Mira Costa football team. They’re turning sour lemons into sweet lemonade, copper pennies into silver dollars and dirty water into fine wine.                

Five weeks ago the Mustangs had an ugly 2-5 record, had suffered a string of heart-breaking close losses, and appeared to be going nowhere but home for the holidays. Even worse, they were coming off a 33-0 beatdown at the hands of Palos Verdes, a game in which the Mustangs sputtering offense looked even worse than the overwhelmed defense.

Now? Now the Mustangs are riding a five-game winning streak, the offense is firing on all cylinders – run, pass and catch — they’ve scored more than 30 points in every game since they got shut out, and most amazing of all, they’re headed for the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 7 playoffs after their second consecutive postseason upset win.

Oh, and their record is now a respectable 7-5 and climbing the charts with a bullet.

Their latest can-you-believe-this victory came Friday night in front of a raucous home crowd at Waller Stadium that celebrated every complete pass, every touchdown and every run that gained more than a yard.

At the end the scoreboard read Mira Costa 41, Alta Loma 14 and the game wasn’t even as close as that. Alta Loma, which came into the game as a heavy favorite with an 8-3 record to the Mustangs 6-5, scored a meaningless late touchdown that just pointed out what a blowout the game had been.

The Mustangs, who had been surging over the past month on the emerging running game of junior fullback Matt Kraskousas, this time returned to the passing wizardry of senior quarterback Casey Pavlick, who had a game that came very close to perfection.

Pavlick connected on 20 of 24 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns. And for good measure he ran the football in for a 9-yard TD himself.

But football is a team sport, and it’s the growth of the skill players around him that enabled Pavlick to shine so brightly Friday night. The Alta Loma defense clearly had a game plan of stopping Kraskousas after he turbo-charged the second half of the Mustang’s season and personally destroyed Garden Grove Pacifica in their quarterfinal playoff game last week by averaging more than 12 yards per carry.  

Costa knew that stopping Kraskoukas’s running attack would likely be the Alta Loma defensive game plan, so they countered by passing early and often. And they had just the perfect pitch-and-catch tandem to make it work.

Coming into the season, everyone knew Pavlick had had an outstanding junior season as a last-minute replacement for the surprise departure of Slingin’ Sam Whitney to an eastern prep school. After filling Whitney’s cleats so effectively, Pavlick appeared primed for a spectacular senior season.

But the missing ingredient was a go-to receiver, a guy who could get open consistently and catch anything coming his way, whether it was high, low, wide or right on target. Last year that role was filled by All-World senior Thomas Southey, who also starred in soccer and lacrosse.

But Southey graduated last June and there was no obvious replacement coming into this season. It took a while for the Mustangs to settle on one. Eventually, however, Cole Crotty emerged as Pavlick’s favorite target. Combined with the bruising running of Kraskouskas, it turned the Mustangs offense from a one-dimensional attack to a multi-dimensional machine.

That new offensive element came to its full fruition Friday night as Pavlick twice connected with Crotty for identical 31-yard touchdowns. Crotty finished with four catches for 96 yards and two TDs. 

From the opening kickoff, Costa was in the driver’s seat. Foreshadowing the rout that was to come, Pavlick was perfect on the first drive of the game, an 8-play study in smart football. He completed all five of his passes, mixed in a couple of runs by Kraskoukas, and got the Mustangs across the goal line on a quarterback keeper for a 9-yard rushing TD.     

Just as it has been during the entire second half of the season, the Mustang defense and its star linebacker Brett McCalla was suffocating, holding the Alta Loma offense well in check. At the end of the first quarter Costa had a 7-0 lead and the happy home crowd was in a partying mood. 

Things got more festive on the second play of the second quarter when Crotty worked his way open downfield in the left corner of the end zone and snagged a 31-yard pass from Pavlick to extend the Mustangs lead to 14-0 with 11:19 left in the half.

Defensively, Mira Costa shut down Alta Loma quarterback Trevor Tedesco, who connected on just 1-of-7 passes on their first four possessions. Indeed, the Braves could only muster 46 yards of total offense in the first half and the Mustangs soon led 21-0 thanks to another Pavlick-to-Crotty 31-yard TD.

Mira Costa recovered the ensuing kick, and a pass interference call put the Mustang offense on the 14-yard line. Two plays later Kraskouskas rammed his way through the defensive line for a 3-yard rushing touchdown and a 27-0 lead at halftime. He finished with 66 yards rushing on 15 carries — not quite the incredible performance he put on the week before but still averaging more than four yards per carry.

Alta Loma showed signs of life early in the third quarter when running back Braden Lynch broke free for a 22-yard score to cut the deficit to 27-7.

But any thoughts of a miracle comeback were quickly banished by the Mustangs when Dean Repetti scored on a 1-yard run at the 3:40 mark. Later in the quarter, Repetti added a 30-yard gain to set up a 2-yard scoring run and pump the lead up to 41-7, effectively putting the game on ice by the end of the third quarter.

That left the home crowd the entire fourth quarter to party and celebrate their home team as they continued to climb out of the 2-5 grave they were buried in not so long ago.

As miraculous as the Mustang playoff wins over Garden Grove Pacifica, and Alta Loma have been, a victory Friday night over St. Pius X-St. Matthias of Downey would be even more unbelievable. They will come into Waller Stadium with a 10-2 record compared to Costa’s 7-5. Even more impressive, they have scored 347 more points than they have allowed. Mira Costa, on the other hand, has only outscored their opponents by 97 points. Of course, much of that happened before they started their magic act five weeks ago. 

This time the Mustangs will be riding a 5-game winning streak, will have a loud and enthusiastic home crowd cheering them on, and will take the field knowing they have already been part of something magical, something that never, ever could have been predicted just a month ago.

Step right up and enjoy the magic show.

UCLA Hoops is Happenin’

The buzz is back at Pauley Pavilion.

That’s because Johnny Juzang is back.

And Tyger Campbell is back.

And Jaime Jauquez is back.    

And Jules Bernard is back.

And Cody Riley is back (although he will miss the next couple of weeks with a knee injury.)

Indeed, UCLA’s entire starting lineup is back from the Bruins basketball team that went all the way to the NCAA semifinals last spring before losing to Gonzaga on a 40-foot miracle buzzer beater by Jalen Suggs, who went on to be the fifth pick in the NBA draft.

This week the first college basketball rankings were released, and UCLA sits in second place, behind only – wait for it – Gonzaga.

Those rankings are a bit suspect, however, and the two top spots should be reversed. The Bruins are returning their entire crew – plus a couple of new hotshots – while Gonzaga has lost its two best players, Suggs and Corey Kispert, to the NBA.

Friday night the Bruins showed the whole nation why they deserve to be the top-ranked team in America by defeating fourth ranked Villanova 86-77 in an overtime thriller. It wasn’t just that the Bruins pulled off an overtime win against a highly ranked team – it was the way they came back from a 10-point deficit late in the second half that brought back such vivid memories of their run from the First Four to the Final Four last spring.      

For those who may have forgotten their March Madness heroics just six months ago, the oddly-named First Four teams are the last four teams that the selection committee deems to be borderline worthy of post-season play but unworthy of a direct invitation into the main draw of the NCAA tournament. Those teams are said to be “on the bubble.”

So instead those four teams square off for two games that will produce the last two teams allowed into the main tournament. In their game against an always tough Michigan State team, UCLA displayed the kind of grit and moxie that Coach Mick Cronin had been trying to force-feed them in his first two seasons at the helm of a program that long ago ruled college basketball ,but had fallen on hard times – with the notable exception of the 1995 NCAA title – for the last four decades.

After beating Michigan State, the Bruins went on a magic carpet ride that made them the first team ever to go from the First Four to the Final Four. In the process they bonded with their fans who had drifted away during the disastrous Coach Steve Alford era. 

Die-hard Bruins fans will never forget – or forgive — how Alford insisted on playing his son Bryce at point guard instead of fellow freshman Zach LaVine. LaVine was so disgusted at being stuck on the bench that he left for the NBA after one season in Westwood while Bryce Alford played another three years, chucking up 3-pointers like a fortunate son who had a personal green light from Daddy. Today LaVine is a two-time NBA All Star while Alford was recently cut again by a G-League team. In other words, he’s not even good enough for the NBA’s minor league teams.

Cronin, however, is a far different, and far better coach, than Alford ever was before he was finally fired mid-season in 2018. First of all, you can’t play for Cronin unless you’re willing to play down and dirty defense, contesting every shot, challenging every pass and diving on the floor for every loose ball.

Second, he plays guys based strictly on merit, not nepotism. The players who practice every day know who is better than who, and they respect a coach like Cronin who doesn’t play favorites and awards minutes based on production, skill and work ethic.

That was never clearer than in the final minutes of the overtime win against Villanova when Cronin removed Juzang from the game for a couple of key minutes.

Yes, Juzang, the former Harvard-Westlake star who started his college career at Kentucky but transferred back home after one season, is the best scorer on the team. And while he gives an honest effort on defense, he is the weakest defender among the starting five. So when the Bruins absolutely had to have a couple of stops in the final minutes, Cronin removed Juzang and inserted Jaylen Clark, their best defensive guard. 

Clark made a couple of key defensive plays that helped the Bruins come back from a late 10-point deficit. Then, in the overtime, Juzang did his thing and hit a few amazing shots that carried them to the win in front of a standing-room-only crowd that included former Bruin greats Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes, actress Jessica Alba, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts and ring announcer Michael Buffer (yes, he got the crowd revved-up with his signature “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” introduction.)                                         

Juzang led his team in scoring with 25 points, hitting an array of jumpers and drives, a display of offensive dominance highlighted by a pull-up three pointer that proved the turning point in the overtime session.

Each of the other starters contributed in the fashion they became used to last spring. Jaquez provided the rebounding and defensive grit every winning team needs. Campbell was the floor leader every winning team needs, and even hit two straight 3-pointers to fuel the Bruins 10-point comeback late in the game.

Bernard hit the single biggest shot of the game, a banked-in one-handed fling that kept the Bruins within 2 points with less than a minute left.

Only the 6-foot-7 Riley, an undersized board beast, did not contribute to the win and that’s because he suffered what looked like a bad knee injury in the season’s first game but turned out to be a strained ligament that should only keep him out for a week or two.

The buzz is back at Pauley Pavilion.

And it’s only going to get louder.

Cancel that All-LA SoFi Superbowl

A month ago the hottest football fantasy in town was the projected Super Bowl battle between the LA Rams and the LA Chargers in So-Fi Stadium next February. Whichever team won would be secondary. The important thing is that Rams owner Stan Kroenke, one of the richest old men in the world, would get to check off one of the last items on his bucket list.

Equally important, it would establish Los Angeles as the pro football capital of the world for the foreseeable future.

And why not dream a little? The Chargers were 4-1 and looked to have the best young quarterback in the NFL in Justin Herbert. The Rams were 5-0 and had an early MVP candidate in their own new quarterback, Matthew Stafford.

Today? Today the only part of that fever dream that still seems real at all is that the Super Bowl will indeed be played in the magnificent football cathedral known as SoFi Stadium. The venue that cost Kroenke a cool $5.5 billion without a penny of taxpayer money.

The Chargers and/or the Rams making a Super Bowl appearance? They’ve got a lot of work to do. The odds of that happening have plummeted like President Joe Biden’s approval ratings since it became clear he couldn’t wave a magic wand and make the Covid pandemic just go away.

Since then the Chargers have fallen to a 5-4 record after Sunday’s frustrating 27-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Rams have fallen to 7-3 after Monday night’s face-plant 31-10 loss to the San Francisco 49er’s.

While both teams are still likely to make the playoffs, neither one is now on anybody’s list of likely Super Bowl winners or even contenders.

The main problem for both teams – and this is the biggest shocker of all – is the deterioration in their quarterback play.

Herbert, who set every rookie quarterback record last season on his journey from scrub to superstar, has regressed noticeably in the last month. Those incredible passes he was fitting into tight windows where only his targeted receiver had a chance to catch it are now just a little off, by six or 12 inches, just enough to throw off the rhythm and timing of the passing game the Chargers are so reliant on.

And the receivers like Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jalen Guyton who felt like they were playing with the QB with the biggest and most accurate arm in the league are now suddenly dropping sure catches at the worst possible times. In Sunday’s loss both running back Austin Ekeler and Allen dropped on-target passes that would have been sure touchdowns with an open field in front of them. In a close game, those two drops were the difference between winning and losing.

But there’s plenty of hope in Charger land, where just a month ago coach Brandon Staley called Herbert “a gangster quarterback” after he led his team to an incredible comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs and their all-everything QB Patrick Mahomes.

So the narrative for now is that these are simply growing pains for Herbert, who is dealing with a new coach, a new system and a new offensive coordinator. Someone with his 6-foot-6 size, 24/7 work ethic, analytical mind and howitzer arm is sure to snap out of his slump and return to the All-World form he displayed all of last season and the first month of this season.   

Right?

The alternative narrative – that the league has figured him out and now we’re seeing the real Herbie – is unthinkable.

No, the real panic around town now surrounds the Rams. After all, this is still the Rams town the same way it is the Dodgers town, and SoFi is the Rams House the same way Dodgers Stadium is the Boys in Blue House.

So, what has happened to Stafford, who threw two consecutive interceptions last week – including an ugly pick-six – and threw two more in the early going against the 49er’s, setting them up for a quick 14-0 lead that seemed to knock the fight out of the Rams?

Well, first of all, it’s clear now that the general exhilaration of foisting Jared Goff off on the Lions, and getting Stafford in return skewed the local perception of Stafford.

He never won a playoff game in 12 years in Detroit, but the explanation for that ominous stat was predictable: the franchise was dysfunctional, and he couldn’t carry a bad team to a good finish.

But now that we’ve watched him for 10 games and are no longer comparing him to the hapless and mistake-prone Goff on every play of every game, a couple of issues are becoming clear.

First, Stafford, for all his arm talent, is a very streaky passer. He can get red-hot, but he can also get ice cold. And second, even when he is hot, he tends to pass the ball high. Most of his misses sail over the receiver’s head where they can get picked off by the strong safety or other defensive backs.

And just like with Herbert’s receivers, Stafford’s receivers have developed a serious case of the dropsies. Both Cooper Kupp – who leads the league in receptions – and tight end Tyler Higbee dropped passes they should have caught early in the 49er’s game, helping set the stage for the rout to come.

There is panic in Rams land because they are trending in the wrong direction and have pushed all their chips to the middle of the table while mortgaging their future to win now. Not only did they have to send two first-round draft picks to Detroit to get the Lions to swallow Goff’s bloated contract with $110 million in guaranteed money, but just last week they sent two second-round picks to Denver in a trade for Von Miller. Once upon a time, Miller was the best defensive end in the league, and he was the MVP of Super Bowl 50. But that was a long time ago, at least in NFL years. 

The idea now is to pair him with Aaron Donald for a terrorizing defensive line, but so far it’s only theoretical and he did nothing against San Francisco. Neither did Odell Beckham Jr., the former superstar wide receiver who was signed as a free agent this week. He’s been a me-first guy wherever he’s played, and it’s hard to see him fitting into the team-first Rams culture.

But he certainly deserves a chance to show he can contribute. And now he has to do more than that, with the late-breaking news that wide receiver Robert Woods – the former USC star who was their second-best receiver behind Kupp – is done for the season with a knee injury.

We’re now more than halfway through the 17-game season, and both LA teams are struggling to stay afloat.

The next four weeks will tell the story of their season, and right now it’s looking more like bust than boom for both of them.

And that All LA Super Bowl?

A fantasy that’s quickly turned into a pipe dream.          

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER                  

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