On the night of Oct. 6, the odds that Laguna Beach High's football team would make a return trip to the CIF Southern Section playoffs were at their lowest point.
The Breakers had fallen to 1-5 overall with a 24-point loss to Godinez.
A team desperate for wins came up with the formula the rest of the way in the Orange Coast League.
Riding a four-game winning streak, the Breakers rode their emotional roller coaster of a season into Temecula, where they took on a sitting CIF State champion in Rancho Christian on Friday.
The Eagles had put up an average of 45.4 points per game during South Valley League play, and the Breakers responded to the challenge of a fast-paced, big-play offense.
Laguna Beach rallied to tie the score in the third quarter, but Rancho Christian pulled out a tight 24-17 win in the first round of the Division 12 playoffs.
"This program has grown so much throughout this season," Breakers senior linebacker Zach Fields said. "We just displayed tonight how we can fight any team and will our way to a game.
"Sadly, this one slipped away from us, but I'm excited to see what this team has in the future."
Rancho Christian coach Jim Kunau said that his team had nine starters that played both ways when the Eagles won the CIF Southern Section Division 13 and the CIF State Division 6AA titles last year. He said that the top returner from that team, Jaden Schieberl, would be the fastest player on the field.
Indeed, Schieberl proved tough to contain. The 5 feet 8, 185-pound senior running back rushed 18 times for 181 yards and three touchdowns. He scored on runs of 69, 21 and 11 yards.
Schieberl's last score was the game-winner. It came with 35 seconds left in the third quarter, answering an eight-yard rushing touchdown by Breakers quarterback Curtis Harrison that had tied the game at 17-17 with 3:07 left in the quarter.
Laguna Beach (5-6) would see the ball just twice after that. Noah Handel pulled a 37-yard field goal wide to the left with 9:57 remaining.
After a big punt return by Sean Nolan, the Breakers had good field position at Rancho Christian's 28, but Harrison was intercepted for the second time by Jojo Saatzer.
The Eagles ran the remaining 7:35 off the clock, aided by a defensive pass interference call. Blake Lusk was in coverage on Tyler Treadway on a third-and-long near the far sideline. As the ball arrived, Lusk appeared to put his hands behind his back to avoid contact with the airborne receiver, but the flag still flew.
Early in the game, Rancho Christian (8-3) had a lot of success with vertical passing routes. Carter Treadway, who finished with 347 passing yards, had five passes of 30 or more yards to five different receivers. They were completed to Tyler Treadway (132 receiving yards), Joseph Rapolla, Joseph Schumann, Paul Nichols and Saatzer.
"They did a great job of getting their No. 3 receiver vertical against our two guys," Breakers coach John Shanahan said. "We made that slight adjustment, and it helped a lot.
"They only got one more over the top after that, so our kids made the adjustment."
Laguna Beach refused to go away. Jack Raffo and Fields recovered fumbles on defense, keeping the margin manageable. Fields set the Breakers up at their 43 with 3:09 remaining in the half.
Harrison took the Breakers down the field in two minutes, finishing the drive with rushes of 17 and 11 yards. His score on a quarterback draw to the right cut Rancho Christian's lead to 14-10.
"There was a lot of adversity during this game, and we just did a great job of coming back and fighting," Harrison said. "This team's grit is something that you can't measure, and they're going to come back from anything. I'm really proud of my guys."
A 49-yard reception by Saatzer gave the Eagles the ball at the Laguna Beach two with 11 seconds left before the break. The Breakers forced two incomplete passes from Carter Treadway, and Emma Baker missed a 19-yard field goal to give Laguna Beach momentum going into halftime.
"They're an amazing group of young men," Shanahan said. "They never complain. They come out and work hard every day. They're guys that I just pray are in my life for the rest of my life. They're incredible young men, and I'm lucky to have them."
CIF Southern Section Division 12 playoffs
Rancho Christian 24, Laguna Beach 17
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Laguna Beach 3 – 7 – 7 – 0 — 17
Rancho Christian 7 – 7 – 10 – 0 — 24
LB – Handel 32 FG, 7:40.
RC – Schieberl 69 run (Baker kick), 0:54.
RC – Schieberl 21 run (Baker kick), 11:48.
LB – Harrison 11 run (Handel kick), 0:53.
RC – Baker 39 FG, 6:15.
LB – Harrison 8 run (Handel kick), 3:07.
RC – Schieberl 11 run (Baker kick), 0:35.
LB – Harrison, 14-88, 2 TDs.
RC – Schieberl, 18-181, 3 TDs.
LB – Harrison, 18-33-2, 155.
RC – C. Treadway, 18-32-0, 347.
LB – Nolan, 5-61.
RC – T. Treadway, 7-132.