Newport Harbor football battles, but loses at Aquinas in CIF SoCal Division 3-AA title game
High school football coaches talk about the privilege of practicing on Thanksgiving.
Practicing into December, then, is something even more special.
The Newport Harbor High football team got that opportunity this year, even if few would have imagined that as the postseason began.
The Sailors overcame adversity to win a CIF Southern Section Division 6 championship and make the CIF State playoffs for the first time in program history. But they had a hard time slowing down San Bernardino Aquinas in a season-ending defeat Friday night.
Aquinas scored five straight touchdowns, rallying for a 42-28 victory in a CIF State Southern California Regional Division 3-AA bowl game at Aquinas High.
Aquinas (11-5) will play Fairfield Vanden in the Division 3-AA state championship game next week. It’s still a banner season for Newport Harbor (7-8), whose players will be able to wear their CIF championship rings with pride.
“I told them before the game, they’re playing with house money right now,” Newport Harbor coach Peter Lofthouse said.
“They’ve already had a successful season. Before this season started, we said our dream, our goal was to win a CIF championship. We wanted to be in the final game for the title, and to come out of it with a win and have a championship … there’s no shame in being on this field, on this night in the SoCal Regional and giving yourselves an opportunity for state. That is a special thing in its own right, too.”
Newport Harbor’s offense was clicking in the first half at Aquinas, the CIF Southern Section Division 7 champion. The Sailors grabbed a 21-7 lead after scoring touchdowns on their first three drives, using quick bubble screen passing plays to their advantage.
Senior quarterback AJ Guitron-Moore had touchdown passes to Kashton Henjum, Duke Starnes and Josiah Lamarque as Newport Harbor went ahead. Lamarque took a 53-yard inside slant to the house, giving the Sailors their two-touchdown lead with 4:24 left in the first half.
Guitron-Moore finished 30 of 47 passing for 354 yards and the three scores.
But Aquinas freshman running back JoJo Solis scored on a 12-yard touchdown run, then junior quarterback Dre Robles found junior receiver Kaden Willerford on a 23-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half.
The extra point was blocked, so the Sailors maintained a 21-20 halftime lead. That was short-lived, as Willerford took the second-half kickoff back for a touchdown too.
“We fixed our mistakes,” said Willerford, who faked a reverse handoff before sprinting up the left sideline. “We were missing some blocks on the kick return ... We can run the ball, throw the ball. We can do whatever. Our whole team just puts in work, and nobody can take that away from us.”
The host Falcons added a 58-yard touchdown run by Solis, a freshman who finished with 203 yards rushing and three scores. After Robles scored on a six-yard keeper, Aquinas suddenly had a 42-21 lead late in the third quarter.
“Teams like this, that just have like seven [players] on the line and run it at you, they thrive on momentum,” Newport Harbor senior lineman Grayson Simon said.
“Once they start building their momentum, they gain their confidence and they’ll just keep pounding. We just had to match their energy, and we fell short sometimes. But it’s all good. These younger kids got to experience what a dogfight is deep in the playoffs, late in the season.”
The Sailors drew a bit closer on Hayden Farley’s three-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. Aquinas turned the ball over on downs, and Billy Ridley’s interception in the end zone gave the Sailors offense another chance to score in the final minutes.
They drove to the Aquinas 24-yard-line, before three straight deep pass attempts from Guitron-Moore to Henjum were incomplete against coverage from Aquinas’ Cesar Fernandez. On fourth down, Guitron-Moore went short to Lamarque, but the five-yard gain wasn’t enough to keep possession with 1:45 remaining in the game.
“We were pressing,” Lofthouse said. “Every play became more magnified, because we were running out of time, we were down two scores. This game is a game of inches, and unfortunately late, a couple of those inches just did not break our way.”
Connor Chenier and Alex Pappageorge combined for a sack, and Johnny Chaix had a fumble recovery to highlight the defensive effort for the Sailors.
Lofthouse knows the adversity the Sailors fought through. They finished the regular season with a 3-7 record and a fourth-place finish in the Sunset League.
A month later, they competed against an Aquinas team that has won three CIF Southern Section titles since 2017.
He also knows it’s a young team with plenty of talent coming back. Henjum and Lamarque, who both had 13 catches Friday night for a combined 338 yards and two scores, are a junior and sophomore, respectively.
“Josiah in the playoffs has really become a prominent receiver in our offense,” Lofthouse said. “He is very special. Those two guys with a full offseason and opportunity to get healthy, it bodes well for us next season for sure.”
Still, there were plentiful contributions made by the senior class. Guitron-Moore started the season as a third-string quarterback and ended it as a starter for a CIF champion.
“It’s definitely something that’s going to stick with me my whole life,” Guitron-Moore said.
“The brothers that I have here, my coaches, it’s all going to be with me the rest of my life. It’s a great story. We wanted to win state, but it ended good. CIF champions is pretty good. I’m proud of the team.”
CIF State Southern California Regional Division 3-AA
Aquinas 42, Newport Harbor 28
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Newport 7 – 14 – 0 – 7 – 28
Aquinas 7 – 13 – 22 – 0 – 42
NH – Henjum 13 pass from Guitron-Moore (Richardson kick), 5:36.
A – Solis 1 run (Martinez kick), 3:03.
NH – Starnes 16 pass from Guitron-Moore (Richardson kick), 11:53.
NH – Lamarque 53 pass from Guitron-Moore (Richardson kick), 4:24.
A – Solis 12 run (Martinez kick), 2:12.
A – Willerford 23 pass from Robles (kick blocked), 0:39.
A – Willerford 92 kickoff return (Martinez kick), 11:46.
A – Solis 58 run (Solis run), 8:32.
A – Robles 6 run (Martinez kick), 2:31.
NH – Farley 3 run (Richardson kick), 11:50.
NH – Slater, 11-36.
A – Solis, 25-203, 3 TDs.
NH – Guitron-Moore, 30-47-0, 354, 3 TDs.
A – Robles, 8-12-1, 181, 1 TD.
NH – Henjum, 13-178, 1 TD.
A – Fernandez, 5-125.
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