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WEEK ZERO FOOTBALL: Hicks, Zackery provide early fireworks, Stillman wins it late for La Mirada in season opener

August 24, 2022

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

LAKE FOREST-It wasn’t the prettiest of games by either host El Toro High or La Mirada High to kickstart the 2022 season, but there had to be a winner. Despite interceptions thrown by senior quarterback Nehuel Garcia in a span of 1:49 in the fourth quarter, a pair of missed extra points and a pair of unsuccessful two-point conversions by El Toro throughout the contest allowed the Matadores to pull out a hard-fought 27-24 win in the final minute last Friday night.

With 2:27 remaining in the game, Garcia controlled a nifty six-play, 57-yard drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown run from senior running back Denver Stillman with 58 seconds remaining. But the dagger in the heart came on the ensuing kickoff when the ball bounced off an El Toro player and the Matadores pounced on the pigskin before running more time off the clock. The win avenged last season’s 24-21 loss to the Chargers in the season-opener.

“These boys really wanted this game bad,” said La Mirada head coach Mike Moschetti. “The Covid season…they got us pretty good last year, they got us. We have to clean up, like every team, probably in the country. First game problems, personal fouls, interceptions, holdings, not the right personnel in the game. They got back to back interceptions; they could have quit. [But] Nehuel battled and had a big time drive and found a way to get an ugly win. But a win is a win.”

Garcia had a solid first half, completing 12 of 17 passes in the first half for 77 yards. His last pass of the half, which went for 17 yards to senior wide receiver Xavier Hicks, came with 15 seconds left and gave the Matadores their first lead, 7-6. Garcia then completed all four passes he attempted in the third quarter, and the final four he attempted in the game.

After surrendering consecutive touchdowns in a matter of 22 seconds in the fourth quarter, La Mirada was down 24-21 with 5:32 left to play. Garcia was picked off by Jaden Renick on the third play of the ensuing drive, the second interception in the past 92 seconds, but the Chargers were forced to punt, giving the Mats the ball at their own 43-yard line.

“We had a play…there were five or six minutes left, so we knew it was a tough situation,” said Moschetti. “They were going to kick it deep [and] I think our guy kind of made a mistake by diving on the ball. It looked like it was going to go out of bounds. We had a play we saved all game long and just didn’t connect on it.

“We thought we had changed the momentum of the game,” he continued. “We have a senior quarterback who has played a lot of football and we thought it was there. But the guy made a great play and picked it off.”

Garcia connected with Hicks for 15 yards and a 10-yard run from senior running back C.J. Zackery put the ball at the 31-yard line where El Toro called a timeout with 1:31 left. Then three more completions for 26 yard put the ball at the five where Stillman cashed in for the game-winner.

Following a scoreless opening quarter, El Toro opened the scoring on the first play of the second quarter when Ben Armendariz threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Josh Vivonia. However, the extra point was missed, which would haunt the Chargers the rest of the night. La Mirada had the ball for one drive in the opening stanza, which stalled at the 39-yard line on a failed fourth down attempt.

La Mirada would have three drives in the second quarter, the first ending in a fumble and the second on a three-and-out. But the defense kept the offense in the game, stopping El Toro on downs midway through the quarter, then forcing the Chargers to punt with 4:05 left before the half. That set the stage for La Mirada to go 81 yards on 12 plays to get its first score of the season.

That was huge because the Mats received the ball to begin the second half and marched 64 yards on 10 plays, culminating in a Zackery three-yard score with 6:41 left in the quarter. El Toro quickly answered when Micah Mende’s three-yard score ended a 12-play, 78-yard drive with 28 seconds left in the stanza. But a failed two-point conversion run kept La Mirada in front 14-12.

La Mirada’s defense continued to clamp down early in the fourth when senior Trevor Cook batted down a pass second down. On the next play, Armendariz overthrew a wide open Vivonia in the middle of the field and a bad snap on the punt attempt put the ball on the two-yard line, where Zackery’s second score made it 21-12 with 10:02 remaining.

A pair of touchdown runs from Thomas Frum, the first (three yards) with 5:54 left in the game and then a 23-yard run 22 seconds later put the Chargers in front 24-21. But a missed extra point attempt on the first, then a failed two-point pass attempt on the latter made the score what it was. Had El Toro converted on its extra points, the score might have been 28-21 with 5:32 left to play.

“I don’t know why they were going for two,” wondered Moschetti. “It was 24-21. But they felt they needed to go for two. We were very fortunate. I just felt like we kind of had control of the game and our opening drive [of the game]; we went right down the field and were doing all kind of good things. Then we had a turnover. We really wanted to be balanced against these guys.”

Garcia completed 20 of 30 passes for 171 yards while Hicks caught seven of them for 84 yards and senior Tanner Roberts another three for 40 yards. Roberts would add another 54 yards of offense on six carries while Zackery picked up 48 yards on 11 rushes. Defensively, the Matadores were led by Stillman and senior linebacker Tanner Roberts, both of whom had five and a half tackles and freshman Jordan Lauago, who added four and a half tackles.

“He’ll be the first to tell you he’s got to play better,” said Moschetti of his quarterback. “We have to connect on some of these throws we’re trying to do. But I think some first-game jitters…he’s only going to get better. But next week, we can’t afford to miss throws like that. I think we have to run the ball a little bit better and try to keep Yorba Linda’s offense off the field and try to be physical with those guys.”

La Mirada will face Yorba Linda High next in a battle of undefeated teams. The Mustangs knocked off Damien High 28-19 last Friday night, turning a 15-7 halftime lead into a 28-13 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Quarterback Reyn Beal was 12 of 14 for 161 yards and a touchdown while William Saucedo rushed 30 times for 153 yards and scored three touchdowns. Yorba Linda won all 10 regular season games last season before falling to Bishop Amat High 44-21 in a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 first round contest.










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