Semifinal-ity once more

Coach Jason Hitchens' third season at Corona del Mar High ended the same way as his first.

The Sea Kings fell one game short of playing in the CIF Southern Section Southern Division championship game.

Second-seeded CdM needed one more victory to make its first section-final appearance in 21 years. Hitchens got the Sea Kings close before they lost to Beckman, 24-3, in a semifinal game at Tustin High on Saturday.

Guiding CdM to the semis twice in three years is something Hitchens can be proud of.

"That's going to be a little disappointing," Hitchens said of exiting the postseason in the semis again. "I think when you look at the season as a whole, coming off last season, [when] we didn't win a [Pacific Coast League] game. We were picked to finish fourth in league [before this season]. We weren't even on anybody's radar. The kids came and they won the first [outright] league title in 22 years at the school. I think there's a lot that they can be proud about.

"Obviously, you would like to be in that 14th game. It was still a great season. You win 10 games. You're playing in December. There's nothing to be ashamed of. "

The Sea Kings pulled off a remarkable turnaround from a year ago.

To go from missing the playoffs last year to one victory shy of playing in the big game this year, Hitchens led the way to CdM's fourth 10-win season in the program's history.

Twenty-five seniors bought into Hitchens' plan and it worked for CdM (10-2-1). Only one team had beaten the Sea Kings before last week.

No team knocked off CdM in league play as it posted a 4-0-1 record. One of those wins came against Beckman, a fifth-place team. The two teams clashed in the regular-season finale, as the Sea Kings hung on to a 17-15 victory to clinch the outright league crown.

The second meeting between these league foes was for a lot more: a chance to move on to play for a section title.

Through three quarters, the playoff game was close. Beckman led, 7-3, but had the ball in CdM territory at the start of the fourth quarter after recovering a fumble. The Patriots converted three points off the turnover to increase their lead to 10-3 with 10:02 left to play.

All the Sea Kings needed was a touchdown and extra-point kick and the game is tied. Getting a first down against the Patriots proved difficult.

The Sea Kings went three-and-out and punted. Clay Reinhardt did his job, as he did all night, booting a 49-yard punt, leaving Beckman on its own 17.

Three weeks ago, the Patriots might have run on every down to eat up the clock. The Sea Kings faced a different offense than the one on the same field on Nov. 12.

The Patriots, an at-large entry into the playoffs, did not play conservatively. They understood running against the Sea Kings is not easy, with linemen Aaron Vasquez, Stephen Ascher and Alex Herrera clogging holes, and linebackers Preston Risser and Aaron White flying to the ball.

Beckman Coach Fred Shambaugh figured his offense had to come up with an answer for CdM's stout defense.

"We knew it was through the air," Shambaugh said. "We put that right on [quarterback Cameron Biedgoly's] shoulders and he responded."

The Sea Kings' offense in the second half was held scoreless, and it managed just 39 yards and turned the ball over twice, leading to 10 Beckman points. The Patriots were on their way to reaching their first section title game in school history.

"They finished fifth, but all of us, myself included, had them voted to win league at the beginning of the season," Hitchens said of the Patriots (8-5), who face top-seeded Garden Grove (12-1) for the championship on Friday. "They have as much, if not more talent, than anybody in the division.

"I don't think any of [the semi losses] are harder or easier [to swallow]. When you get this far, you're close enough that you can taste it. We'll keep plugging away and we'll see if we can get over that hurdle in the next couple of years."

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