GARDENA — During this past week, Arroyo Grande High football coach Tom Goossen characterized the team at Junipero Serra High in Gardena as a pretty big mountain to climb.
Arroyo Grande ascended higher this season than it had in a decade, but Friday night, Serra held on to its high ground.
Serra defeated Arroyo Grande 35-10 to win the CIF-Southern Section Western Division championship and claim its 29th straight overall victory — the longest active streak in California.
“There are only so many things you can take away (defensively) when they have such great athletes,” Goossen said afterward. “We have a lot of things to be proud of, a lot of things that we’ll look back on and eventually smile over. Right now, it’s obviously painful, but we played our hearts out.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” Goossen said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of.”
The Cavaliers (14-0) all but assured themselves of a return trip to a California prep bowl game, a year after winning a state championship in that setting. Serra came in ranked No. 22 in the country in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 and No. 24 in ESPN RISE’s national Fab 50.
Serra, a school that serves the surrounding communities of Carson, Compton, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, Lennox, South Central Los Angeles and Torrance in addition to Gardena, has four of Rivals.com’s preseason California top-100 college prospects, not to mention several other players who will likely join them in the Division I ranks.
Cavaliers running back Shaquille Richard, a Cal Poly recruit, ran for 160 yards on 23 carries Friday, part of a steady attack that compiled 20 first downs.
Two lost fumbles also hurt Arroyo Grande, including one on a kickoff return that Pete Lauderdale scooped up and ran 26 yards into the end zone to make it 21-3 following the first quarter, en route to a 28-3 halftime lead.
Serra receiver Marqise Lee had three catches for 48 yards and three touchdowns, while teammate George Farmer had two receptions for 64 yards and a TD. Both have offers from virtually any big-time college program that can be named.
“Through the air they were able to out-athlete us at a couple moments, and that’s how it goes,” Goossen said. “We competed as hard as we could.”
Cavaliers quarterback Conner Preston, who has verbally committed to SMU, was 10-of-22 passing for 158 yards and four touchdowns, and also ran for 56 yards on eight carries.
Meanwhile, Arroyo Grande running back Christian Crichton also had a standout game on the ground. The senior third-year starter rushed for 76 yards on 21 carries.
“Christian Crichton is one of the toughest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Goossen said. “No matter how hard they hit him, he kept on coming back.”
Garrett Owens accounted for all of the Eagles’ points.
Owens, a junior ranked by national kicking guru Chris Sailer as the fourth-best college kicking prospect in his class nationally, made a 51-yard field goal to give Arroyo Grande a 3-0 lead with 6:23 left in the first quarter.
Later, quarterback Brent Vanderveen found the versatile Owens, also a productive receiver, on an out route for a 23-yard touchdown pass with 3:24 remaining to provide the final scoring.
“We came back in the second half and started to assert ourselves,” Goossen said.
It was the second week in a row that a PAC 7 team from San Luis Obispo County hung with the Cavaliers in the second half. In the semifinals, Serra scored all of its points before the break during a 41-23 win over Paso Robles.
Also last week, Arroyo Grande rallied from a 16-14 halftime deficit against third-seeded Chaminade Prep of West Hills, scoring 38 straight points in a 52-19 win over a team most had predicted to make it to the title game.
“We knew we could come back because we’re a great second-half team,” Owens said, “but we just couldn’t come all the way through.”
Despite the loss, Arroyo Grande (11-3) certainly had a season to remember.
The Eagles came into the championship game as the final San Luis Obispo County team still playing, and as one of only 26 schools with a game left on the schedule throughout the 579-school section.
“We had a good shot,” Owens said. “Hopefully next year we can just push forward and get this back.”
The Eagles had reeled off four straight wins coming into the title contest, reaching No. 24 in CalPreps.com’s statewide rankings.
They also came up with an upset of second-seeded Dominguez of Compton, 17-7, in the quarterfinal round.
The trip to a divisional final was Arroyo Grande’s first since 2000.
“We had tremendous growth,” Goossen said reflectively. “I don’t think there was a moment there that the team did not continue to grow and get better and believe in themselves and each other. And that’s all you can ask for as a coach.”