GARDEN GROVE — Listed at 5 feet 7, 180 pounds— both likely embellished — Estancia High senior Diego Herrera would hardly appear to be the one player the Eagles could not afford to lose.
But when Herrera went down with a right ankle sprain midway through Estancia's first offensive possession Friday in a CIF Southern Section Southern Division first-round playoff game against Los Amigos at Bolsa Grande High, it may just as well have been a blow to the visitors' Achilles' heel, as the Eagles trailed from the outset and couldn't recover, falling, 33-12.
Herrera was not only the Eagles starting tight end and nose guard, but also their long-snapper on punts and kicks. And he was a fill-in on special teams at that, since taking over for senior linebacker-fullback Jackson Letterman, who was lost with a season-ending knee injury in September.
With Herrera unable to play the rest of the half, Estancia improvised on fourth down and its lone failed conversion attempt. A replacement's ill-fated snap from shotgun formation on a pooch punt floated slowly down from about 15 feet in the air, allowing the Lobos' Alfred Dominguez to block the would-be punt and return it 37 yards for a touchdown.
Dominguez's special teams touchdown upped the Lobos' lead to 19-6 with 4:54 left in the first half and also signified the helplessness inflicted on the Eagles, who were otherwise hanging with the 9-2 Lobos.
Estancia (5-6) had 196 yards of offense and 10 first downs before intermission, almost matching the designated hosts, who had 214 yards and 10 first downs.
And when Estancia junior Indiana Taylor returned the second-half kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the Eagles' appeared to be building momentum for a possible comeback.
But a clearly hobbling Herrera, who bravely returned to snap on the conversion attempt, missed his holder slightly with the snap following Taylor's' touchdown and the Eagles never scored again.
Herrera did have a heroic moment late in the third quarter, when after successfully snapping on an Estancia punt, Los Amigos muffed the reception and Estancia freshman Dylan Laurent wrestled the loose ball away to give the Eagles possession at the Lobos' 25-yard line. Herrera limped to the sideline thrusting his fist in the air.
An interception two plays later, however, ended the opportunity and Los Amigos used its physical ground game to advance to the quarterfinals against top-seed and two-time defending division champion Corona del Mar.
The interception was the lone turnover of the game, but Estancia had six first-half penalties for 60 yards, most of which set its offense back.
The Eagles had second-and-32 on their first possession, but eventually converted. They eventually had fourth and goal at the Lobos' four-yard line but, sans long-snapper, were forced to go for it and a run was stuffed at the two.
After Los Amigos drove 98 yards on nine plays to take a 6-0 lead, Estancia answered with a 12-play, 60-yard march capped by Christian Laurent's four-yard touchdown run.
Los Amigos needed just two plays to answer as Moby Contreras, returning from a broken collarbone, bolted 56 yards for a touchdown on his way to 220 rushing yards on 20 attempts.
Los Amigos amassed 389 of its 448 offensive yards on the ground, while Christian Laurent, who has battled ankle problems the last four weeks, led the Eagles' offense with 56 yards on 17 carries.
Dylan Laurent had a would-be 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown nullified by an illegal block as the Eagles' fifth consecutive season in the playoffs ended in the first round for the fourth time during that run.
"The kids played hard, but I think we were a little star struck in the playoffs and it showed with our mistakes," Estancia Coach Mike Bargas said. "Give Los Amigos credit, but if we would have eliminated some of our mistakes, we'd still be right there."
The Eagles might take solace in the fact that much of the roster will return in 2014.