Mesa Musings: Mustangs' first victory was so sweet

Costa Mesa High School played its first varsity football game 51 years ago this month.

I was there.

It was Sept. 23, 1960, and the senior-less Mustangs traveled south to play the Ramona High School Bulldogs 13 miles southeast of Escondido.

Costa Mesa High began its third fall semester of operation that year, and enrolled only freshmen, sophomores and juniors. No seniors.

Ramona's football team opened the 1960 season as the defending CIF small-school champion, and was favored by sportswriters by 20 points over the Mesans, who were without a single player with varsity experience. But the inspired Mustangs pulled off a shocking 14-6 upset.

Costa Mesa logged a 4-5 record that season.

Mesa's student newspaper, the Hitching Post, trumpeted the opening victory over Ramona with a front-page story that carried the headline: "Amazed Players, Fans See Beginners Upset Champs, 14-6."

The piece was written by yours truly. As a junior, I was sports editor of the Hitching Post. I traveled with the team to Ramona for the game.

Buses left Mesa's campus in the middle of the afternoon on Friday, Sept. 23. Kickoff was at 8 p.m. I remember, as a last-minute chore, coach Don Burns sat in the front row of the bus, with assistants Jim Crowe and John O'Brien, and patiently affixed black and green Mustang decals on every white Mesa helmet.

I described the bus trip in my Hitching Post column, "Speaking of Sports," the following week:

"On the way to the game, the players avoided talking about [the game] but relaxed …and [spoke] in regular tones of voice.

"The bus reached Ramona. Tensely, the players got off and put their equipment in the locker room. The minutes dragged on; and the tension continued to mount.

"Players admitted to butterflies as the game whistle blew. The ball soared … and with its flight, all tension, butterflies and nervousness disappeared.

"Mesa High was ready to play football!"

I labeled the field in my game story "the Ramona cow pasture." I kept game notes and stats while patrolling the sidelines, and recall that the turf was very deep, rutted and lumpy. It was as bad a gridiron as I've seen.

On its opening offensive series, Mesa drove 52 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown. Junior halfback Steve Harper scored Mesa's first-ever TD on an eight-yard burst. Gary Carr caught Harper's halfback-pass for a one-point conversion.

The Mustang sideline erupted. The underdogs had drawn first blood.

Ramona tallied on the next possession when halfback Grant Mayer scampered 41 yards for the score. The attempt for the point after failed.

Costa Mesa's defensive unit turned in a sterling effort and shut down the Bulldogs for the remainder of the contest. Mesa led, 7-6, at the half.

The Mustangs began the drive that iced the victory in the third period, and scored early in the fourth.

Mesa drove from deep within its own territory, and halfback Ron Nugent set up the score with a 10-yard scamper to the Bulldog 23. Sophomore quarterback John Leffingwell carried to the 18 and, on the next play, broke loose for a 13-yard pickup to give the Mustangs first-and-goal at the five. Halfback Pete Mathews then powered to the one.

Leffingwell scored on a keeper. He threw to Carr for the point-after, and the Mustangs led, 14-6.

The mood on the bus after the game was ebullient. Some of us dared to dream of a perfect season! Soon enough, life would disabuse us of such naïve notions — as it did to me a few years later when I bought a Batman costume that contained the warning, "Caution: Cape does not enable user to fly."

After going 4-2 in its first six games of 1960, Costa Mesa lost to Brea, 45-0, and dropped its last three contests.

The Mustangs have now played 500 varsity football games — losing more than they've won — but it began well 51 years ago in a Ramona "cow pasture."

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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