Perhaps it was the muddy conditions. Maybe if a long catch or two in the second half could have been hauled in. Perhaps if only a few breaks went the way of Mission Prep’s football team.
However you look at it, the Royals came away so close to their first CIF-Southern Section division championship in school history.
But it wasn’t to be as they lost 28-21 in a nail-biter against Rio Hondo Prep in Arcadia on Friday.
The Northeast Division championship was Rio Hondo’s fourth in a decade.
The Kares somehow found a way to snatch the victory away from an impassioned Royals team hoping to bring the championship home.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Royals head coach Chad Henry. “Last year, we didn’t even get to the playoffs. The growth I’ve seen since I started as head coach here 21⁄2 years ago is immeasurable. Our seniors left a great legacy and our younger players have a lot to look forward to.”
It was the same team the Royals beat 47-14 earlier this season, getting out to a dominating start.
But the tone of this game was much different throughout.
From the get-go, the contest figured to be a little unpredictable on a field that was soaked after a heavy 48 hours of precipitation before the game.
And while Mission Prep is a pass-heavy team that would figure to enjoy dry turf much better, the Royals were able to establish their air attack early.
Quarterback Tyler Baty connected with Joey Hall on a 60-yard touchdown pass on the Royals’ first possession, creating wide separation on a vertical sprint route for the bomb.
The two connected again just before the half on a short screen pass on the Kares’ 18-yard line. Hall put a few jukes on his defenders and darted into the end zone as time expired to give the Royals a 21-14 halftime lead.
Baty finished with 230 yards passing and two touchdowns with one interception, while Hall corralled 10 passes for 166 yards and two scores.
“When (Hall) made that catch and they scored at the half, I thought we were in trouble,” said Ken Drain, Rio Hondo’s coach. “But fortunately, our defense came up big and we were able to shut them out in the second half.”
While the Royals used a ground attack of Patrick Laird who rushed for 66 yards and a four-yard first half score, and Michael Cardwell, who finished with 69 yards, Mission Prep had trouble stopping the Kares’ ground game.
Nate Tayco, who ran for only 14 yards on five carries the last time Mission Prep faced Rio Hondo on Aug. 31, took the ball 24 times for 165 yards in the CIF-Southern Section Northeast Division final.
“We really had a tough time with Tayco on the weak-side and end-arounds,” Henry said. “We tried to make some adjustments but we had some difficulties getting to him. I give him a lot of credit because he played through cramps and he was banged up a bit.”
The Kares took advantage of a 50-yard fleaflicker pass from quarterback Colby Rivera to Jake Holguin that led to a 10-yard rushing score by Tayco, who accounted for all four Kares touchdowns.
Joey Hall appeared to be in prime position for a pick on another long passing play that the Kares completed early in the second half.
The Royals tried to connect on several deep routes in the second half as Hall was beating his man but the passes glanced off his fingertips or landed just out of his reach — perhaps costing Mission Prep their first championship by inches.
The Royals final scoring opportunity came in the fourth as they marched downfield to the Kares 30-yard line.
But a botched snap led to a fumble with 5:25 left in the game and the Kares recovered, closing out the game by eating up clock and running the ball to Royals 10-yard line.
Mission Prep took over with 11 seconds left and Baty completed a pass to Hall who couldn’t get out of bounds and time expired as the Rio Hondo fans erupted.
“Our guys poured their hearts out,” Henry said. “They did everything we asked them to do. We had a great season. We beat five teams that won their league and finished 8-1 coming into these playoffs. I’m excited about our future.”