In a game of big plays, Esperanza quarterback Keith McDonald saved the best for last.
McDonald connected with Reid Pullen on a seven-yard pass with three seconds left to give top-seeded Esperanza a 38-35 victory over Hart in a Southern Section Division III semifinal game at Valencia High in Placentia.
“The play worked the way it was designed,” said McDonald, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. “I was hot and we had two minutes left. I felt that we could do it. . . . Either we would win or we would go home crying.”
Scott Blanchard had given fourth-seeded Hart (9-4) a 35-31 lead on his fourth touchdown of the game, a 10-yard run with 2:10 remaining.
Esperanza (13-0) started the winning drive at its 34. McDonald passes of 14, 22 and eight yards to Jason Long, Ryan Corbett and Jarod Smith moved the ball to the Hart 22, but the Aztecs needed a four-yard gain on fourth and one by Long with less than a minute left to sustain the drive.
Hart quarterback Ryan Connors passed for a career-high 325 yards, completing 18 of 36 passes and two touchdowns. Connors, a junior, finished the season with 2,833 yards.
Hart led, 21-17, at halftime.
Brian Bernier made a diving catch on a nine-yard pass from Connors with five seconds left in the second quarter to cap an 80-yard drive with Connors throwing on eight of the 12 plays and running for a 15-yard gain on third and 13 on from the Hart 48.
Hart, which scored 36 seconds into the game in last week’s quarterfinal victory over El Modena, needed only 40 seconds Friday.
Jon Bodemer returned the opening kickoff 50 yards to the Esperanza 46. After an incomplete pass. Blanchard took a shovel pass from Connors and raced 46 yards to give Hart a 7-0 lead.