When coach Jim Benkert was lured to Westlake Village Oaks Christian four years ago his mission was clear: return the program to the dominance it had enjoyed a decade earlier, when it began a run that would see it win seven Southern Section titles in eight years.
Consider that mission accomplished after Benkert’s Lions beat Valencia 20-19 in the Division 2 championship at Valencia High.
The winning points came on a 26-yard Ajay Culhane field goal with 2:16 to play, Culhane’s second of the fourth quarter.
But to be close enough to make those field goals count, Oaks Christian (12-2) had to tame a potent, no-huddle Valencia offense that had run over opponents while running up more than a point a minute this season. And the Lions did that, limiting the Vikings to just 338 yards while tackling quarterback Connor Downs for losses 12 times — the final time on Valencia’s last offensive play.
For Valencia (12-2), which has won nine consecutive Foothill League titles, Friday’s loss marked the fifth time it has come up short in a CIF final, including twice in the last five seasons.
The teams exchanged touchdowns in the opening quarter with Oaks Christian racing 70 yards in four plays, capped by Zach Charbonnet’s 44-yard run, to go up 7-0 on its first possession.
The next time the Lions had the ball a Josh Calvert pass over the middle was tipped up in the air and Valencia’s Mykael Wright made a diving interception. Wright then turned the turnover into points, taking a short pass from Downs and going 33 yards for this first of two touchdowns. Valencia missed the extra point, however, a mistake that proved critical.
The Vikings, who punted on six of their seven first-half possessions, found a spark late in the half driving 57 yards to go up 12-7 on 19-yard run Moises Haynes 1:17 before halftime. But Oaks Christian needed just 43 seconds to answer, with Calvert finding Robert Fletcher on a 27-yard scoring pass.
Wright got the only touchdown of the second half following a Lions fumble, scoring on a 14-yard pass from Downs — who spent most of the game either on the run or on his back — to send Valencia back in front 19-14.
Culhane then pulled Oaks Christian close midway into the fourth quarter. After missing wide left on a 36-yard try, he got another chance (thanks to a running-into-the-kicker penalty) and he made it count, converting from 31 yards, setting the stage for his game-winning kick. The loss marked the first time this season Valencia has been held to fewer than 42 points.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11