CARSON-Turnovers can make or break a team. For the Long Beach Poly Jackrabbits football team, ranked 12th in the nation, it meant the denial of winning its first ever state championship. What appeared to be a probable, signature win for one of the most storied high school football programs in the country turned into a forgettable night of lost chances and missed opportunities for the CIF Southern Section champions.
Mistakes were the running theme for the night for the Jackrabbits in their CIF California Division I football championship game at the Home Depot Center. A combined five interceptions thrown by Poly quarterbacks Eban “Ejay” Jackson, Tai Tiedemann and running back Manu Luuga doomed Poly (12-4) against Granite Bay in the title game. Without the turnovers and the 11 penalties they committed, Poly would have come out of this hard-fought grudge matchup on top.
The final miscue came when Jackson, in clear desperation mode, threw an interception into double coverage downfield to officially end the Jackrabbits’ last chance gasp at a victory, ensuring a 21-20 come-from-behind win for Granite Bay (13-3). But besides those errant throws, Poly may have had a chance at winning the game or at least carrying the contest into overtime if not for a botched point after attempt following Luuga’s 10-yard touchdown run with 3: 47 remaining in the game.
That turned out to be just as costly as any pick that Jackson or Tiedemann may have thrown. It certainly indirectly cost the Jackrabbits the game. That miscue gave Granite Bay the lifeline it needed to regroup. The Grizzlies then drove 77 yards on six plays to match Luuga’s run. With a 1:12 left in the contest, John Cooley walked into the endzone for a 3-yard touchdown run right up the gut of Poly’s vaunted defense to help his team to tie the ballgame.
Placekicker Colin Brown sealed the deal by making his point after attempt, giving Granite Bay what turned out to be the last lead of the night.
After dominating opponents with their brutal rushing attack, the Jackrabbits were grounded most of the game by Granite Bay, which limited Gerald Wicks to just 28 yards for the entire game. Luuga, picked up the slack for his counterpart in the fourth quarter, rushing for most of his game-high 110 yards. Poly has won 19 CIF Southern Section titles. They’ve played twice in the state championship game in the last five years.
The first time they played in the Open Division title game in 2008 in which they were defeated by Sacramento Grant, 25-20. For most of the game, it looked as if the Jackrabbits would make up for that heart-wrenching loss and further add to their football history with a state title this year. Granite Bay would have none it, though, playing not in awe of the Poly legend, but hitting the Jackrabbits in the mouth time and time again as the two teams slugged it out on the field.
Jackson, stepping in for a struggling Tiedemann, who tossed a pick six 29-yard interception in the third quarter that was returned by Granite Bay’s Dylan Keeney to give the Grizzlies a 14-7 advantage, gave the Jackrabbits an instant spark off the bench. Jackson completed touchdown passes to Wicks and John Smith and make several other big plays to put Poly in position to win. But his two interceptions offset the spectacular plays he made.
Poly’s problems started on their opening drive as they attempted to convert a fourth and two. Granite Bay sent a message to Poly immediately when they stuffed Wicks for no gain. Poly then went three and out on their second possession. The Jackrabbits got it right on their third possession, using a little bit of trickery as Jackson unleashed a 39-yard touchdown pass to Wicks on a flea-flicker.
But then the turnover woes hit the Jackrabbits. On Poly’s next possession, Luuga, operating out of the Wildcat formation, threw an ill-advised pass for an interception, giving the ball back to Granite Bay after the Grizzlies fumbled on the series before. Luckily, Poly escaped damaged on that series. They weren’t so lucky on their fifth possession of the game when Tiedemann threw his first interception.
But out of the two turnovers committed by Poly in the first two quarters, Granite Bay still trailed the Jackrabbits, 7-3 at halftime.
Taking the opening kickoff, Granite Bay went on a long drive that took about half of the time off the clock in the third quarter, settling for a 41-yard field goal by Brown to creep within within 7-6. On the next Poly series, Tiedemann tried to throw a sideline pattern that was too late in getting to his intended receiver and was picked off by Keeney.
Granite Bay’s Taft Partridge ran in the two-point conversion to give the Grizzlies a 14-7 edge. Jackson and Poly answered Granite Bay’s scoring drive with one of their own. Jackson hit Smith on a 28-yard scoring toss to knot the game at 14 with 11 seconds remaining in the third period, setting up a dramatic fourth quarter.
Poly nearly self-destructed on that series, drawing one head-scratching penalty after another. But Jackson kept Poly in the game with his poise, connecting on several big passes to his receivers to keep the drive alive. The tug-of-war between the two teams continued in the final quarter. Unfortunately for the Poly High faithful, the Jackrabbits came up short once again to capture a state championship.