Huntington Beach coach Eric Lo said during preseason camp that the first three games of the season would tell him a lot about his 2011 football team.
Games against El Toro, Corona del Mar and Foothill, two of whom were the Oilers' rivals when they belonged to the Sea View League two years ago, figured to test Huntington right out of the gate.
Lo did learn something Friday at Cap Sheue Field: his team can win the close one.
Huntington never trailed against El Toro but the Oilers had to withstand a barrage of passes - 55 of them - from Chargers quarterback Conner Manning, and a late comeback attempt, to post a 23-21 season-opening victory.
"It's the first game of the season and it was sloppy at times and we made some mistakes," Lo said. "But, we won a game against a very good team that I think will win the Sea View League, and getting a win is the bottom line.
"I thought we made some key plays when we needed to and that allowed us to take the lead in the second half and were able to hang on."
The turning point in the game came midway in the third quarter with the teams deadlocked at 14-14. On second down from his own seven, Manning went back to pass from his own end zone where he was drilled by Huntington's John Vis for a safety. The play gave the Oilers a 16-14 lead with 5:31 left in the quarter.
Four minutes later, Huntington went up 23-14 when Nolan Biegel scored on a bullish, 36-yard run.
It was Biegel's first carry of the game.
"He's a freaking man out there," Lo said of Biegel. "He gave a phenomenal effort. He plays defense and some at tight end, too, and he gave us that big run to help us establish the lead. He played a great game."
El Toro mounted a short, 37-yard drive early in the fourth quarter, to get back in the game. Running back Jacob Furnari appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage at the 25 but the 5-foot-9 junior bounced off the line and went around left end. When he was through, his tackle-breaking touchdown run pulled the Chargers to within 23-21 with 8:11 left to play.
The Chargers had the ball near midfield late in the game but on fourth-and-one from the Huntington 49, Biegel led an Oilers charge that stuffed Furnari for no gain. Huntington took over with 3:04 left and managed to keep possession until punting away with 43 seconds to play.
El Toro had one last shot from its own 8. After completing an eight-yard pass to Cody White, Manning was sacked by defensive end Alexander Alagata and then threw consecutive incompletions. Huntington took over with one second on the clock.
The Oilers defense was tested in the first half by Manning who attempted 38 passes, completing 27 of them. They intercepted the junior twice, once at the goal line when the Chargers appeared to be heading in for a second-quarter score.
Manning attempted only 17 passes in the second half.
"I thought our defense did a nice job of calming down in the second half," Lo said. "We knew that quarterback (Manning) was pretty good. We gave up a few big plays but again, we made key plays when we had to."
Huntington's first offensive possession of the season resulted in a touchdown. The Oilers took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards, 38 of them coming on the first play from scrimmage when quarterback Michael Chislock hit Austin Simpkins in the flat, and Simpkins angled his way down to the El Toro 42. The Oilers also converted a key fourth-down play when running back Fisher Chavira gained two yards to put the ball at the 30. Five plays later, running back Chris Ogilvie scored on a nine-yard run.
El Toro also scored on its opening possession when Manning hit a leaping Dominic Collins in the corner of the end zone. The Oilers regained the lead at 10:39 of the second quarter when Chislock, who fumbled the snap but calmly scooped up the loose ball, threw in the end zone to a wide open Zach Hadlock for a 15-yard scoring pass.
The Chargers tied the score just before the half when Manning hit Furnari with a 12-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds left.
Chislock threw for 135 yards on 10-of-21 passing. Manning was 31 for 55 for 227 yards.
Huntington returns to Sheue Field next Friday to host Corona del Mar in a 7 p.m. nonleague game. The Sea Kings opened their season on a winning note Friday by routing Savanna, 40-0.
"It's another big one for us," Lo said. "They're a tough ball club and we need to fix some mistakes, if we hope to beat them."