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CIF’s big day isn’t quite state of the art

Jimmy Clausen spotted an orange cooler filled with green liquid, popped the top and leaned down to pick it up.

He was going to pour it on the coach’s head. That’s what you do after you win a championship, right?

Clausen’s Westlake Village Oaks Christian High football team had just won the Division III title in the state’s first championship game in 79 years, and Clausen is the quarterback, so it was his job to ...

“No!” shouted a security guard.

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“No?” said Clausen.

“No water on the field!” shouted the guard.

“Why not?” said Clausen.

“We have two more games here today, you have to be respectful of other people,” shouted the guard.

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Clausen shrugged and ran off, this being just another bit of unfinished business on a day filled with them.

His team, with a 45-game winning streak and nine players headed for Division I colleges, was going to inaugurate the state’s bowl series by proving it was one of the best teams in state history.

But it was barely the best team on the field.

Clausen, who last summer showed up for his Notre Dame signing announcement in a limousine, was going to prove he was the best quarterback in the nation.

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But he wasn’t even the best quarterback in the game.

Oaks Christian needed overtime to beat Santa Rosa Cardinal Newman, 27-20, in a celebration of everything wonderful, and wrong, about high school football.

The winning team was undisciplined and underwhelming in victory.

The losing team was limping, grass-stained and triumphant in defeat.

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“They hit us really hard,” said Oaks Christian defensive back Brad Freeman.

The winning team showed that national rankings and reputations of private-school sports factories mean nothing.

The losing team showed that, once again, a couple of hours on the field mean everything.

“They’re a bunch of studs,” said Newman quarterback Ryan Lingle. “But maybe this means we’re a bunch of studs too?”

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Oaks Christian had won its games this season by an average margin of 47 points.

But Cardinal Newman outgained the Lions by 49 yards, held the ball for 21 more minutes, committed two fewer turnovers and had 81 fewer yards of penalties.

Clausen had never lost as a starting quarterback in his high school career -- 41 games before Saturday.

But Lingle, a lightly recruited kid who was knocked flat during the game with ankle and knee injuries, limped circles around him.

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Critics said Oaks Christian was too good to even play in this game, claiming the Lions belonged with the big-enrollment schools for a real state championship game.

The critics were wrong. The hype was silly. Everyone is so busy turning prep sports into college’s minor leagues, they forget these sports are still played by 16-year-old kids who act like it.

Well, OK, Clausen is 19, but you get the point.

“We’re just a bunch of little guys from up north,” Lingle said. “But I think we showed everyone that we belong on the same field.”

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Considering this was California’s first north-south championship showdown in decades, that Home Depot Center field could have been better.

It was brown. It was patched. It contained lines from both baseball and soccer. The midfield emblem -- “CIF: 79 Years Of Waiting” -- was faded.

Yeah, 79 years of waiting for fertilizer.

But at least it was high school football, with marching bands and -- well, no. Not in this first of the day’s three games.

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Neither small school has a marching band, and organizers didn’t feel a need to import one, so it was a rare high school championship game that didn’t sound like one.

Nobody sang the national anthem, it was a recording. And, unlike in the two later games, the starters were not introduced. With an 11 a.m. kickoff, there were only a couple of thousand spectators in the stands.

At the start of the first game, a friend called me from Texas Stadium, and I could barely hear him because of the 26,000 fans attending a Texas state semifinal. But he could hear me perfectly.

This celebration of high school football will take place at Home Depot Center again next winter. Let’s hope officials will work harder at making it feel like a celebration.

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The only real pregame noise came from Clausen, who ran to midfield and pointed and shouted at the Cardinal Newman kids before the opening kickoff.

The kid has a swagger. The kid also has a quick trigger, throwing a bullet 17-yard pass to Marshall Jones for a touchdown on the game’s first possession.

But the kid also is impatient. Cardinal Newman dropped eight guys off the line of scrimmage, and forced him to find an opening, and he couldn’t.

And the kid has a temper, as we saw when he scolded receivers for not catching some of his high-and-wide passes.

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And, of course, as everyone should expect, the kid can be human; he finished the game with only 11 completions in 22 attempts, with three interceptions -- equaling his season total -- and just one touchdown.

“I wouldn’t say they got us down,” Clausen said afterward. “I would say it was just a bump in the road, but we took care of it.”

Give credit to Oaks Christian for not stumbling over that bump.

But give credit to the weekly wonder that is high school football for making them, and us, swerve.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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