Nov. 26, 1993.
That date marks the only time Arroyo Grande High and Culver City met for a football game. And it was a significant one, as the teams were fighting for a semifinal spot in the CIF-Southern Section Division 7 playoffs.
Arroyo Grande won 35-30, forcing Culver City to take a long bus ride home.
The teams meet again tonight. Culver City (10-3) will have to make the same 170-mile trek to Arroyo Grande (12-1), though the stakes are higher. The teams will clash for the Western Division championship, as the highly anticipated matchup kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Doug Hitchen Stadium.
What’s unique about the reunion is that two of Culver City’s coaches played in that 1993 game and remember the heartbreak. Head coach Jahmal Wright and offensive coordinator Aki Wilson have a chance to redeem themselves, though their roles will be restricted to the visiting sideline.
“I remember all my playoff losses,” Wilson says now. “You don’t forget about those things.”
That game, 18 years ago, took place on a cold winter night in Arroyo Grande. The Centaurs arrived with an athletic bunch, one Wilson said had close to 10 college prospects. In fact, Wilson went on to play special teams at Howard University, and Wright became a defensive back at Kansas.
Arroyo Grande, on the other hand, didn’t have any big names, according to that year’s tight end, Dan Neff, who’s now the principal at Branch Elementary in Arroyo Grande. He said his Eagles were unified.
“They were athletic, fast and strong. They hit hard. They were a good team,” Neff says now about that year’s Centaurs. “We won because of our organization and our coaching. We had phenomenal coaches. We were organized and well-prepared. We knew what the other team was going to do and we accounted for it.”
That night, the Eagles rushed for 281 yards, and quarterback Johnny Ramirez threw a pair of touchdown passes, including a 20-yarder to Neff in the third quarter that put his team ahead 35-24 and erased a 24-14 halftime deficit.
The Eagles even converted a fake punt on a fourth-and-3 at Culver City’s 41-yard line in the second half. Bryan Jones took the snap and sprinted 15 yards for a first down.
“We called that fake punt on Monday,” then-Arroyo Grande coach Jon Huss told what was then The Telegram-Tribune. “We saw something on film, talked about it for two days and at dinner tonight. We had a pretty good guy carrying the ball.”
Culver City began to unravel in the third quarter, when Arroyo Grande capitalized on consecutive turnovers with scores. It also didn’t help that the Centaurs didn’t have injured kicker William Maples; in turn, they failed on all five extra-point attempts.
Wilson — who finished with 74 of his team’s 84 rushing yards — committed one of the turnovers. Years later, he still is pained by the loss.“I felt like it was my fault,” Wilson said about the loss.
So there’s no wonder Wilson and Wright want payback.
As for members of this year’s Eagles coaching staff, they don’t remember many details of that 1993 game other than that they were victorious. Tom Goossen, now the head coach, was the defensive coordinator and he said: “The thing that I remember is that I don’t remember a thing. There’s been so many games, so many battles.”
Perhaps the game was clouded by the fact that the Eagles went on to lose their semifinal game against Rancho Alamitos, 24-14, the following week.
But the defeat helped shape the 1994 season, in which the Eagles won one of its four division titles.
Arroyo Grande hasn’t accomplished that feat since 1998, and Culver City is trying to win its first title in 33 years.
Tonight, both teams have second chances at history.