CLAREMONT — Perhaps it was the postgame reaction of the Flintridge Prep football team on a sunny afternoon in Claremont that best signified just how far the Rebels have come in the span of just one year.
Having hardly played their best, the Rebels were disappointed in the performance that added up to a dominant 40-13 victory over host Webb in their Prep League finale, but were still rejoicing in the history achieved with the triumph.
Indeed, Prep has come a long way from a 2011 squad that had just one win, forfeited two games, went winless in league and would've gladly taken a victory of any sort. Now, the 2012 team finds itself in a position to critique a lopsided win over a struggling Webb (1-7, 0-3 in league), as it improved to 5-4 to finish the regular season above .500 for the first time since 2007, while most importantly achieving a 3-1 league mark that assured Prep a second-place league finish and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"It's bittersweet. We had a poor performance today. We came out flat. I think they did overlook Webb, which we told them all week not to do," said Rebels Coach Antonio Harrison, whose team has now won four of its last five and rebounded from an Oct. 19 loss to first-place Rio Hondo Prep. "It's sweet because we're back in the playoffs. It's another milestone this team has accomplished."
It's also the first time Harrison has coached a team into the postseason in his third year at the Rebels helm.
"I'm thankful for that, I'm happy for the kids, we have at least one more game to play," said Harrison, whose team has a bye next week and awaits the CIF Southern Section Northeast Division playoff pairings on Nov. 4. "Once playoffs start, you never know what can happen."
What happened at the start of Saturday's game was disturbing for Prep, as Webb, which has been defeated by double-digits seven weeks in a row, played the Rebels to a 0-0 tie at the end of the first quarter.
But, buoyed by big days from running backs Stephan Smith and Kurt Kozacik, the Rebels raced to 28 second-quarter points to begin the rout.
Smith, also a defensive back, had two interceptions, including one that he returned 60 yards for a touchdown, and 12 carries for 156 yards and touchdowns of 18, 53 and eight yards.
"Stephan's a big-time player and he makes big-time plays," Harrison said.
Kozacik rushed 20 times for a game-high 188 yards and a score, in the process eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark rushing on the season, according to Harrison.
"Kurt's a hard-nose, grind-it-out runner," said Harrison, who now has two 1,000-yard rushers with Smith and Kozacik. "We've got more than one player who can do something."
After a scoreless first 12 minutes, Prep scored on the first play of the second quarter, as Smith swept outside, weaving to the edge and then accelerating on a dime to speed past the defense untouched for an 18-yard score and a 6-0 lead.
"Our running game's been pretty much working for us all year," said Smith of a rushing attack that totaled 391 yards in 42 carries. "We know eventually something's gonna break."
Prep, which went for two all game, was stuffed on the ensuing conversion attempt.
On the ensuing kickoff, though, Webb's Ricky Gonzales took a handoff on a reverse and raced 82 yards for a touchdown, with the point-after putting the Gauls up, 7-6. While the play put Webb ahead for the first and only time, it might very well have been the wake-up call the Rebels needed.
"I think it took Webb, for them to score a touchdown, for the boys to finally wake up," Harrison said. "They responded."
Following the Webb score, Smith swept right behind offensive lineman Brian Heintz. The junior running back juked would-be tacklers, weaving his way up the sideline before weaving back in and then out again for a 53-yard touchdown with 9:45 to go in the half. Kyle Hamane, who finished with 58 yards in four carries, made good on the two-point conversion run for a 14-7 lead.
The following offensive drive was all Kozacik, who rumbled 63 yards to the two, sprinting through the right side before bringing it back inside in front of four defenders. On the next play, he bulled up the middle for a score and a 20-7 lead.
The rout was on when Smith picked off a pass and sprinted 60 yards untouched for a score that, following another Hamane conversion run, put the Rebels up, 28-7. The score would remain that way going into the second half.
Prep wasted little time in swelling its lead, as a Kozacik 25-yard run preceded a Smith six-yard gain and finally a nine-yard Hamane sweep for a touchdown and a 34-7 advantage.
"There were no adjustments. ... It was a mentality change," said Kozacik of the Rebels picking up their play. "Once our offense does start kicking it into gear, we do start rolling."
Smith's eight-yard touchdown run came with 5:09 to go in the third quarter and brought about a running clock, as the Rebels cleared their bench.
Though the offense started a bit late, the defense was dominant throughout, causing three turnovers, including a Dylan Colliflower fumble recovery. The starting unit held Webb under 100 total yards and without a score, as the Gauls got their only offensive score against the Rebels' second unit on a 50-yard drive that upped the final offensive numbers for the home team to 129 yards (89 rush, 40 pass).
"Our defense is always solid," Kozacik said.
And while the performance wasn't outstanding, Saturday's game stood as result enough to exemplify just how exceptional the Rebels' turnaround has been.
"We made a lot of mistakes, started a little flat. We finally started getting it going. In the end, we did what we had to do, so it's a pretty good win," Smith said. "It feels great [to be in the playoffs]. We didn't expect it, but we knew if we worked hard enough, it could happen. We're excited to be back in the playoffs. None of us has ever been there."
Said Kozacik: "As for what this means? Who would've guessed? It's incredible."