GARDEN GROVE — For the first time this season, the Laguna Beach High football team met its match.
And then some.
The Breakers had their bid to reach the CIF Southern Section Southern Division championship game halted Friday by Garden Grove as the Argonauts pulled away to a 35-21 semifinal victory.
The loss, the first of the year for Laguna, prevented the No. 2-seeded Breakers (11-1-1) from reaching their first division final in 50 years and only fifth title game appearance all-time. They also were upended in the semifinals for the second straight year.
No. 3-seeded Garden Grove, which won its eighth straight game to improve to 11-2, moves on to face top-seeded and defending champion Corona del Mar in the Southern Division title game on Saturday. The Sea Kings earned a repeat trip to the final after knocking out host Woodbridge, 25-0, in Friday's other semifinal.
Laguna Coach Mike Churchill knew his team would face its stiffest challenge of the year at Garden Grove. The Argonauts featured a formidable run game, a quarterback (Angel Martinez) who had thrown for nearly 1,500 yards, and linemen who held a distinct size advantage on the Breakers.
But the Breakers came out and traded early punches with the Argonauts, although they suffered a big blow in the first half when running back Nathan Lancaster suffered a knee injury. The junior was sidelined for the second half. Without Lancaster, the Argonauts keyed on star running back Drake Martinez.
Martinez, Laguna's career rushing and scoring leader, was limited to 77 yards. He also was hobbled but soldiered on in a game played on downtrodden turf at Garden Grove.
"We ran into someone who was bigger, stronger than us tonight," Churchill said. "They took it to us but our kids never quit. I was proud of them for that, for fighting until the very end."
Laguna never led in the game. The Breakers were within a score in the second quarter but gave up a late touchdown that put them in a 28-14 hole at the half. They never recovered but did play the Argonauts on even terms in the second half.
Garden Grove, which averaged 49 points a game heading into Friday's matchup, took a 7-0 lead on a one-yard run by Maze Masoe midway through the first quarter. Laguna came right back with a 10-play drive that ended when Lancaster took a pitch, went around left end toward the end zone and stretched out to hit the pylon for a six-yard touchdown. Robbie McInerny's PAT kick tied the score with 1:14 left in the quarter.
During the drive, quarterback Larry Stewart had passes of 15 and 11 yards to Lancaster and Jake Hexberg, who caught the winning past last week against Northwood, that helped the Breakers reach the Garden Grove six-yard line. Lancaster's scoring run came on third-and-goal.
It didn't take Garden Grove long to regain the lead. Four plays, to be exact. Running back C.J. Del Real, the Argonaut's leading rusher, started an 80-yard drive that took just 74 seconds to complete, with a 58-yard burst down the left side that put the ball at the Laguna 22. Three players later, Del Real scored from nine yards out just six seconds into the second quarter.
Laguna, however, wasn't to be outdone. Four plays after Del Real scored, Stewart and senior receiver Robert Clemons teamed on a 67-yard touchdown pass that tied the score, 14-14, with 9:38 to go in the half. Stewart put on a great move on a textbook fake hand-off, ran to his right and lofted a pass toward Clemons, who went high to make the catch over leaping Garden Grove cornerback Semaj T. Bilal at the Garden Grove 27. Clemons then went to work. He made a juke move on linebacker Brandon Rodriguez at the 22 and went in for the score.
The chess match continued on Garden Grove's next possession. The Argonauts went on an 80-yard drive to go in front, for good. A 28-yard pass from Martinez to Bilal took the ball down to the Laguna 42 and Del Real scored his second touchdown four plays later on a 19-yard run around right end. It gave the Argonauts a 21-14 lead with 4:59 left in the half.
The game took a turn with just over a minute left in the half. Starting at his own 30 with 1:29 remaining, Martinez guided Garden Grove steadily downfield. He was five of seven on the drive and his 16-yard touchdown pass to receiver Austen Christian with 27 seconds left in the half gave the Argonauts some breathing room and a 28-14 lead at the break.
"That late score sure didn't help us any," Churchill said. "We played them toe-to-toe in the first half."
After a wild first half, neither team scored in the third quarter. Garden Grove extended its lead to 35-14 on a 30-yard touchdown run by Del Real, who rushed for 175 yards, with 4:03 remaining in the game. Laguna scored two minutes later when Stewart hit Martinez in the end zone on a 14-yard scoring pass. The Breakers got the ball right back when McInerny's onside kick was recovered by Keaton Martinez at the Garden Grove 47. They moved down to the 14 but on fourth down, Stewart's pass intended for Clemons fell incomplete in the end zone with 34 seconds left.
The 21 points were a season-low for the Breakers.
Stewart, in his final game, threw for 198 yards and was 12 of 19 with two scores. He also put a big lick on Garden Grove linebacker Josh Vasquez during Laguna's final scoring drive that sprung Martinez for a 14-yard gain after Martinez appeared to be pinned for a 10-yard loss.
"Larry did a real nice job throwing the ball tonight," Churchill said.
Laguna turned in another record-setting season under Churchill who completed his second year as head coach. In his two years, the program has gone 21-4-1. The 11 wins by the Breakers this year is a school record.
"These kids had a great run," Churchill said of a 13-member senior group that included Stewart, Clemons, McInerny, and Drake Martinez. "This group won a ton of games and reached the semifinals two straight years. They've accomplished a lot."
Laguna Results (11-1-1)
21...^ Garden Grove...35
(*denotes league game; ^denotes CIF game)