The Sylmar High football team and Coach Jeff Engilman had plenty to be thankful for Thursday after dodging two potential season-ending bullets in the span of about 26 hours this week.
The top-seeded Spartans (12-0), the City Section's only undefeated team, faced expulsion from the playoffs when a reserve linebacker's eligibility came into question. Then, about 24 hours after receiving clearance to play, Sylmar found itself trailing Banning, 21-0, eight minutes into a 4-A Division quarterfinal playoff game Wednesday.
But like so many incidents the Spartans have endured this year, Sylmar survived both scares and will face Carson (4-8) in the semifinals next Friday.
"I told the guys before the game, 'Hey, maybe you guys are a team of destiny. I don't know,' " Engilman said. "But they've got another monster team to play so we'll find out."
After a daylong investigation by City Section Commissioner Barbara Fiege on Tuesday, Engilman received word about 8 p.m. that night that evidence against Joe Gonzalez, a midseason transfer from Saugus who was accused of maintaining dual residency for purposes of eligibility, was inconclusive and that the Spartans would remain in the playoffs.
A day later, Sylmar had to pull out all the stops with trick plays, a blocked extra-point kick, fourth-down conversions and a successful onside kick to beat Banning, 28-27, in a California tiebreaker.
Sylmar overcame a 21-point deficit and--despite six turnovers--tied Banning, 27-27, on Durell Price's one-yard run with 3 minutes 18 seconds remaining. Shaun Avalos' extra-point attempt sailed wide left and the game eventually went into overtime.
The California tiebreaker format is used in all playoff games in the state. Play begins at the 50 and teams alternate possession for eight plays. The winner is the team that has penetrated the opponent's territory after the eight plays. The Spartans won by maintaining the line of scrimmage at the Banning 49 on the final play.
Sylmar began the game with turnovers on its first two possessions. A fumbled punt snap and an interception return allowed Banning to start inside the Sylmar 20 on the Pilots' second and third possessions. The Pilots converted both and led, 21-0, with 3:32 left in the first quarter.
It was then that diminutive Gerrod Taylor--the Spartan spark plug--introduced himself to the Pilots. Taylor's 80-yard kickoff return turned a comatose Sylmar crowd into a frenzy. Less than six minutes later, Sylmar scored again, on Tyrone Morgan's two-yard run.
But Banning extended its lead with 1:08 left in the second quarter when Matt Moala intercepted a Greg Marquez pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown. Price blocked the extra-point attempt and Banning led at halftime, 27-14.
Sylmar's offensive problems continued in the third quarter. With Marquez struggling, Engilman called on Taylor, a 5-foot-5 junior, to replace Marquez in a wishbone offense on third and seven at the Banning 16. Three Taylor runs accounted for 15 yards, the last for a two-yard touchdown with 6:20 left.
With Banning clinging to a 27-21 lead, Avalos' onside kick was recovered by Daniel Hernandez at the Banning 47.
After a one-yard gain, Sylmar converted on fourth and nine on Marquez's 36-yard pass to Eddie Lopez. Four plays later, Price's one-yard run tied the score, 27-27.