Lancer football ends 24-year CIF playoff win drought, comes back from 14 down to defeat Tustin Nov. 8

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The Sunny Hills football team celebrates together following its 21-14 comeback win against Tustin High School in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 8 playoffs Nov. 8 at Buena Park High School stadium. Photo taken by Accolade photographer Paul Yasutake

Andrew Ngo

This story was updated Nov. 12 to reflect the number of years that the football team last won a first-round CIF playoff game.

It took 21 unanswered points — including a two-point conversion and a go-ahead score with 31 seconds left — for Sunny Hills to prevail in its CIF-Southern Section Division 8 playoff against Tustin and to advance for the first time in 24 years to the next round.

“I’m so proud of the kids,” Sunny Hills football head coach Peter Karavedas said. “Down 14-0, they really responded well to adversity, and it was just a great team win, especially with their backs against the wall.”

While the school’s football program ended the 24-year playoff win drought, Karavedas also earned his first CIF playoff victory as a head coach at Sunny Hills.

“I’m still kind of in shock,” he said. “Not because I thought we weren’t good, but it’s just been so long.”

The Lancers (9-2, 4-1 Freeway League) started off slowly in the Nov. 8 home game at Buena Park High School stadium, failing to convert a fourth and one from midfield on their first offensive series of the game.

With four minutes remaining in the first quarter, their defense had also given up a two-yard rushing touchdown to Tustin running back senior Matt Rodriguez, who entered the game with 1,498 rushing yards, the sixth most in the county according to the Orange County Register.

Two minutes into the second half, Rodriguez broke free on a 57-yard dash to the end zone that put the Tillers (5-6, 3-2 Crestview League) up 14-0.

The last time the Lancers were shut out in the first half was in their blowout loss to La Habra Oct. 18. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, Karavedas and his coaching staff decided to keep the ball in the hands of the team’s star running back, senior Jun Ahn, who responded with a 12-yard rushing touchdown at the 4:29 mark of the third quarter. Coming into the game, Ahn had already gained 1,339 rushing yards, the eighth most in Orange County according to the Register.

“Down 14-0, we had been in this type of situation before,” said quarterback senior Luke Duxbury of the Sept. 27 Trabuco Hills game when his team was down 34-27 going into the fourth quarter. “We knew it was a battle, and we just had to keep our heads up.”

With its first scoring drive, the team faced another challenge when the special teams unit failed to complete the extra point after a botched snap on the point after attempt, keeping the score at 14-6.

After a strong defensive series that included a forced incomplete pass on third down and 14 to close out the third quarter, the Lancers started the fourth quarter with a strong offensive push.

Duxbury handed the ball off to Ahn, who then lit up the Tustin defense for a 61-yard scamper with 10:26 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“During the run, my only thought was to not get tackled,” he said. “We started off rough, but we never gave up, and it shows there.”

With the score 14-12, Karevadas called a timeout before going for the two-point conversion instead of the extra point try.

With momentum on the Lancers’ side, Sunny Hills decided to use its other rusher, running back junior Brandon Roberts, instead of Ahn to punch through the goal line for the conversion points.

And Roberts did just that, taking the handoff from Duxbury and running to the corner of the end zone to tie the game with roars from the crowd clad in black for the “blackout” theme in the stands.

With just over 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Tillers’ offense started near its own 30-yard line and completed a few first downs before offensive penalties forced Tustin to send its punt crew onto the field.

“The big difference [late in the game] was that we were more focused and played for each other because no one wanted to go home [with a loss],” said linebacker junior Carson Irons, who entered the game with 107 tackles, the eighth most in Orange County according to the Register. “Our training has also put us in better shape to not get tired late in the game.”

Following the change of possession, the Lancers’ offense came back on the field starting on the Sunny Hills 25-yard line.

The Lancers’ drive stalled at the Tustin 45-yard line, and on fourth and three, Karavedas again decided to ride on the side of momentum and opted to go for the first down with five minutes remaining.

Rather than rely on the rushing attack, the coach called for Duxbury to throw an eight-yard pass to wide receiver and defensive back senior Wilson Cal, who caught it, moving the chains and keeping the drive alive as well as hyping up the crowd that was now equipped with two students carrying “SH” flags up and down the bleachers.

Cal said that conversion was a confidence builder for him and his teammates.

“We needed to make that play to keep the game alive,” he said. “Once we got that first down, we knew we could make it downfield.”

A series of short passes and rushing plays from the Lancer offense pushed the drive to a third down and goal from the Tustin nine yard line with just 31 seconds remaining.

That’s when the Lancers’ 24-year CIF playoff winning drought ended as Karavedas once again went with his reliable rusher, Ahn.

The senior running back took the handoff and rushed through several Tiller defenders for the go-ahead score that put Sunny Hills up 21-14 following kicker freshman Mathias Brown’s extra point try.

“We could have sealed the game with a [field goal], but we wanted to get that touchdown and put the nail in the coffin,” said Ahn, who finished the night with 184 yards and three touchdowns.

As the remaining 30 seconds winded down, and the Lancer Nation student section chanted, “DE-FENSE,” a desperation throw deep downfield from Tustin quarterback sophomore Riley Kelly fell just past the outstretched arms of a Tiller receiver that would have almost certainly been a touchdown.

The Lancer defense then closed out the game with a sack on Kelly on second down and 10 as time expired, sending Sunny Hills players running and celebrating onto the new turf field.

“It was a great feeling,” Duxbury said. “Sunny Hills hasn’t made it past the first round in 24 years so it was just a great feeling all around.”

Before sending off the student section with the singing of the Sunny Hills alma mater, Karavedas had a speech for his players.

“Let’s enjoy this win tonight,” he said to several dozen boys kneeling in front of him. “But the most beautiful thing about today is that we’re one game closer [to a CIF title].”

The Lancers’ quarterfinal matchup will be a home game against the Notre Dame Titans of Riverside (7-4, 2-1 Sunbelt League) Nov. 15 at Buena Park High School stadium.