For nine years, Long Beach Poly Coach Antonio Pierce was a linebacker in the NFL, so when he said before Friday's Pac-5 Division quarterfinal game against Crespi, "This is big-boy football," he wasn't kidding.
From hard hits to players refusing to go down despite five and six players grabbing at their shoulders and clinging to their legs, the sense of urgency came through loud and clear. With each possession, the intensity kept rising.
And the 19-time Southern Section champion Jackrabbits (11-1) were more than prepared to get physical and dirty. A 17-point third-quarter outburst and four touchdown passes on the night from quarterback Josh Love enabled Poly to defeat Crespi, 44-27, before an overflow crowd in Encino.
This was the game that vindicated the belief of Poly's rookie head coach that the Jackrabbits needed to change their philosophy on offense. Pierce installed a no-huddle attack, created to give one-on-one opportunities for Poly's top athletes.
Crespi (9-2) played man-to-man defense all night and got burned repeatedly by Poly's standout receivers. Justin Calhoun caught touchdown passes of 33 and 59 yards. Johnnie Rucker had touchdown receptions of 19 and 21 yards. The Jackrabbits also received top rushing performances from James Brooks Jr., who had a 79-yard touchdown run, and Jeremy Calhoun, who rushed for 106 yards in 10 carries.
And, of course, there was Love, who came in with 2,683 yards passing and 35 touchdowns. Talk about underrated players — that's Love. When Poly needed a big play, Love got the ball to his playmakers. He was 14 of 26 passing for 273 yards and four touchdowns. He also scored a touchdown.
"I knew I was going to get hit, I knew the blitz was coming," Love said. "I just had to get rid of the ball."
Poly's defense limited the Celts to one touchdown in the second half after falling behind, 21-13, at halftime. The Jackrabbits dominated the third quarter, and linebacker Omar Lyles contributed an important fumble recovery to keep the momentum going.
Crespi had ended the half seemingly in control. The Celts were able to run the ball well, but the surprise was quarterback Wes Massett's passing. He was five of five for 95 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Chris May. A big play was an interception by Crespi's Anthonie Doxey off a tipped pass by Michael Mason that set up May's score.
But Poly began to wear down the Celts. Its defense, featuring hard-hitting safety Iman Marshall, shut down the run. The Celts, using lots of two-way players, couldn't keep up.
So the Pac-5 semifinals are set for next Friday. It will be Poly taking on top-seeded St. John Bosco at Cerritos College and Corona Centennial hosting La Puente Bishop Amat.
St. John Bosco's last playoff defeat was in 2012 to Poly, 13-10. The Braves haven't forgotten, and if you think Friday's game was big-boy football, wait until the Jackrabbits take on the Braves in the great rematch.