After watching his team commit five turnovers Friday night and fail to generate the running game it typically does, Costa Mesa High football coach Wally Grant said that Katella appeared to want the game more than the Mustangs did.
It seemed surprising, given everything that Costa Mesa had going for it heading into the CIF Southern Section Southern Division first-round game at Jim Scott Stadium. The Mustangs had won six games in a row and were undefeated Orange Coast League champions. They were also determined to win their first CIF game since 1997.
It was not to be.
Katella capitalized on Mesa's second-half miscues and topped the Mustangs, 35-21, handing the program its 10th straight playoff loss.
The reason why Costa Mesa won't move on to face No. 2-seeded Garden Grove, which beat Orange, 42-10, in another Southern Division first-round game, was simple to Grant.
"We win and lose games up front, and we didn't do very well up front," he said. "They physically took it to us. You've got to hand it to them."
The Mustangs (7-4) appeared all too willing to hand the game to the Knights (8-3). Three times in the second half, they lost fumbles on their own side of the field. The first two came on running plays, the third as the Mesa quarterback tried to fend off a sack.
Katella junior middle linebacker Christian Lowrance, who seemed to be around the ball all night, caused the first fumble. It was recovered by junior lineman Jose Pereida.
"I just filled the hole and put my facemask into his chest, and the ball came out," Lowrance said.
Lowrance exited the stadium after the game with a bloody lip and a bloody uniform. It was worth it to him after his team beat the Mustangs for the second time this year. Katella also won, 21-16, earlier this season, although Mesa was without senior standouts Oronde Crenshaw and Quinton Bell in that game.
Katella held Crenshaw to 105 yards on 21 carries on Friday night.
"We practice hard, and yeah man, we did everything right," Lowrance said. "It all happens in the game. We did what our coach told us to do: fill the holes, watch the guard pull, pass protection, everything. It was one heck of a game, though, I'm not going to lie."
Katella scored touchdowns after each turnover. The second one came on a three-yard run by fullback Jose Bermejo, listed at 5-foot-11 and 285 pounds. Bermejo's second touchdown of the night came with 9:26 to go, giving the Knights a 35-14 advantage.
It agitated Costa Mesa senior tight end-nose guard Joseph Quiroz, who yelled, "Let's go!" to the Mesa fans and furiously clapped his hands together. Bell tried to bring Mesa back.
He leaped to catch Oliver Ferris' throw into double coverage deep in Katella territory. Both of the defenders fell down on the play but Bell stayed upright, sprinting into the end zone. His second touchdown catch of the night narrowed the deficit to 35-21 with 6:38 to go.
The next time Mesa got the ball, it fumbled again at its own 45. Katella failed to score again, but just as importantly, the Knights took nearly five minutes off the clock.
Defensively, the Mustangs held Katella's TJ Ashmeade to 91 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. But the second-half turnovers loomed large.
"Defensively, I thought we played well," Grant said. "The score doesn't indicate how well we played. You can't put the ball on the carpet three times and expect to win a game. [Katella Coach] Fred [DiPalma] did a good job and got those kids ready, and they just flat out wanted this game more than our kids did."
The game certainly started promisingly for the Mustangs, who forced their lone turnover of the game on Katella's opening drive. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Knights quarterback Ricardo Armenta scrambled for yardage, but he was stripped from behind by Quiroz. Ferris recovered the ball on the Katella 31-yard line.
A 21-yard run by Crenshaw gave the Mustangs a first-and-goal. On fourth-and-goal from the one, junior fullback Will Padilla found the end zone to give the Mustangs the early lead.
But Crenshaw never had another run for more than 11 yards in the half, and the Mustangs never got back in the red zone on five subsequent first-half possessions. They went into halftime down, 14-7.
"I think our kids lost their edge a little bit, because that first series wasn't very difficult," Grant said. "I don't know if we lost our edge, or they got a little bit upset, but from that point on they flat out handled us."