Valencia High School Coach Mike Marrujo went into Friday night's opener with plenty of questions about his team. The answers were harder to come by, even after a 20-12 nonleague victory over St. John Bosco.
Are the Tigers as good as they appeared in the first half, when they swaggered up and down the field at St. John Bosco?
Or was that the real Valencia team that fumbled three times in the second half and turned a potential rout into a close game?
Not even Marrujo knew for sure.
"All I know is we have a lot of room for improvement," Marrujo said.
One thing is certain: the Tigers came away with a victory in a game they tried desperately to give away.
Valencia took a 20-6 lead into the fourth quarter, but then fumbled three times to give the Braves several opportunities. Willie Barnes, who gained 80 yards in 18 carries, fumbled twice and sophomore Chris Draft fumbled once.
St. John Bosco turned one turnover into a 12-yard touchdown run by Derek Ayers, his second of the game. But the Braves could get no closer despite Valencia's handouts.
The Tigers finally put the game away when Kevin Alexander intercepted a Jason Hamilton pass. They managed to run out the final 1:35 without losing the ball again.
"We can't be putting the ball on the ground like that," Marrujo said. "That can not happen again."
On the brighter side, the Tigers did play near flawless football in the first half.
Quarterback Marc O'Brien directed a biting attack, which rolled up 275 yards and scored three touchdowns during the first two quarters. He completed seven of eight passes for 180 yards in the first half, then was 0 for 1 in the second half.
"We started playing against the clock in the second half, so we got more conservative," Marrujo said.
Said O'Brien: "I just do whatever coach says."
O'Brien threw two touchdown passes, including a 74-yarder to Korey Alexander. O'Brien scored the Tigers' first touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak.
O'Brien set up the Tigers' final score with a 43-yard pass to Kevin Alexander. Four plays later, O'Brien rolled left, then threw right to Ryan Roskelly for a five-yard touchdown pass that gave Valencia a 20-6 halftime lead.
Roskelly caught three passes for 40 yards. He also had 97 yards rushing.
On the other side, the Braves' offense consisted of getting Ayers the ball and waiting for him to make a big play. He did occasionally, but not enough.
Ayers, who gained more than 1,200 yards in seven games last season, had 88 yards in 18 carries, despite being singled out by the Tigers' defense. He had a 17-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and four others of more than 10 yards.
"There were a couple times when I thought we had him bottled up, but he just out-ran our defense," Marrujo said. "That kid is a rocket."
However, the rest of the Braves' offense fizzled. It accounted for only 84 yards.