The turnaround started late, very late, in the season. If you were to look at what was to bind the Huntington Beach Oilers together and send them on to what has been both an improbable and incredible postseason ride, you would find it in family ties.
Huntington's unstoppable run over the past month has catapulted the Oilers to where all teams hope the season ends: in a CIF Southern Section football championship game. They will get the chance to win their first section title when they face Sunset League rival Newport Harbor in the Southwest Division final.
The Oilers, the home team for the game, and Sailors kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday at Angel Stadium.
Both teams enter the game with 8-5 records.
"It's unreal to think that we will be playing for a CIF championship," Huntington junior defensive lineman Hojun Lee said after his sack on the final play of last Friday's semifinal game sealed a 28-21 victory over No. 3-seeded and defending division champion Edison at Orange Coast College. "I'm so proud of my team and coaches. It's a great feeling."
Huntington's late-season surge started with a key game against Newport Harbor, and the Oilers will end their season Saturday against the Sailors.
Before that first meeting between the teams on Nov. 8 at Huntington, Oilers Coach Eric Lo did something that would, unbeknownst to him, alter the course of the season for his team.
"It was Senior Night, and I invited the fathers of our senior players into the locker room," he said. "I really think we have a great group of seniors, and I wanted to do something special. We went out and played a real good game that night against Newport.
"Since that game, we have invited families into the locker room before our games. Parents, siblings, grandparents, people have supported our program. It's really been powerful and fantastic, this love for each other that has been on display. It has really united this team."
The first pregame locker room visit served as inspiration to Huntington, which went on to defeat Newport Harbor, 40-14, on Senior Night. That win allowed the Oilers the chance to be considered for an at-large berth to the playoffs, which they received. Since landing that bid, they've gone out and took their playoff opportunity by storm.
And Lo continued the newly formed pregame ritual. He said he extended an open invitation to anyone who wanted to visit pregame before the Oilers took on No. 2-seeded Yorba Linda in a first-round game Nov .15. A week later, the pregame visit drew an even bigger crowd for a home quarterfinal game against San Juan Hills.
Last week at OCC, Lo said nearly 100 well-wishers came into the locker room before the Oilers took the field at LeBard Stadium for its showdown with Edison. One of those in on the pregame talks via Skype was the father of starting defensive/back-up tight end Liam Jimmons. The sophomore said his father, Edward Jimmons, a Staff Sergeant and Commanding Officer with the National Guards, is serving a tour of duty and stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"It was pretty crazy that night," Liam Jimmons said. "I had kind of felt left out the other nights because everyone else had their dad there in the locker room before game time. I had asked Coach Lo if I could Skype my dad in last week.
"It was really emotional. My dad and I talked later that night, and we almost cried. He got to see me score my first touchdown."
"It's all about being together," Lo said. "It's about family unity, trust, love. Some emotional things have been said in the locker rooms before these games, and our hearts are full when we go out to play."
At Yorba Linda, the Oilers posted a 17-point win (31-14) over the then-10-0 Mustangs. In the quarterfinals, they roared to a 42-0 lead, which resulted in a running clock for the fourth quarter and a 42-12 victory over a 10-1 San Juan Hills team. Against Edison (9-4), they bolted to a 20-0 advantage, fell behind early in the second half, but came right back to score, which led to an eventual, 28-21 upset win.
That's three wins, over three league champions, in three weeks.
Huntington has trailed only once during postseason play. When Edison scored midway through the third quarter of Friday's semifinal game to take a 21-20 lead, the Oilers immediately responded by marching 80 yards in four minutes for the winning score.
Huntington took the opening kickoff and proceeded to march 75 yards for the game's first score. Sophomore running back Travis Heer scored on a 43-yard run. A blocked punt by senior strong safety Drew Becker at the end of Edison's first possession set up Huntington's next score, a four-yard pass from senior quarterback Kai Ross to senior receiver Maurice Barber. On Edison's ensuing possession, Barber came up with an interception near midfield and a big return set the Oilers up at the Edison 33-yard line. Ross would hit Jimmons with a four-yard TD pass for a stunning, 20-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
The winning score also came from Heer, who broke up the middle for a 24-yard scoring run. Ross threw a two-point pass to senior receiver Levi Ison, who made a diving catch in the front of the end zone, and Huntington was in front to stay (28-21) with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter.
Huntington also trailed only once (7-6) in that first meeting with Newport Harbor on Nov. 8. The Oilers held the Sailors to a season-low in points. The Sailors had also scored 14 points in a 34-14 Sept. 20 loss to Back Bay rival Corona del Mar.
Since that 40-14 loss to Huntington, Newport Harbor, much like the Oilers, has been playing at its best in the postseason.
The Sailors tied with Fountain Valley and Los Alamitos for second place in the Sunset League.
"They are a very talented, physical football team and what happened four weeks ago, happened four weeks ago," Lo said. "They have played extremely well in the playoffs to get to the finals. Their quarterback has been outstanding, they have two unbelievable receivers, and Coach [Jeff] Brinkley is someone I respect and always does an outstanding job with his teams. We have our work cut out for us."
The Sailors' run to the title game started with a 32-13 win over Dana Hills (Sea View No. 2). It continued with a stunning, 49-48 home upset of top-seeded La Habra (Freeway League champion) in the quarterfinals. Last week, the Sailors wiped out a 10-7 halftime deficit against Fullerton (Freeway League No. 3) to pull away to a 28-17 semifinal victory.
Newport Harbor quarterback Cole Norris has thrown eight touchdown passes in three postseason games, six of which have gone to receiver Quest Truxton. Norris threw for 474 yards and teamed with Truxton on four touchdown passes in the win over La Habra.
"A Newport Harbor football team is typically big, physical and talented," Huntington Defensive Coordinator Diego Segura said. "The first time we played them, I thought that, and I still think that of them. We played a really good football game against them that night and won.
"Right now, Newport is a confident group. Their quarterback [Norris] is really clicking with his receivers, who are really talented. It's a great challenge for our defense."
Lo has coached in a CIF championship game before. He was an assistant coach (defensive line) at JW North when the Huskies won the CIF Southern Section Division V title in 2003 by defeating a Toby Gerhart-led Norco team, 50-7.
He's guiding Huntington to its second title game appearance, and first since 1993 when the Oilers finished runner-up to Los Alamitos in Division II.
Newport Harbor is making its eighth section championship game appearance under veteran Coach Jeff Brinkley, who is in his 28th year with the program. Brinkley has led the Sailors to three section titles (1994, Division V; 1999, Division VI; 2005, Division VI).
Before the teams kickoff Saturday afternoon, family ties again will bond the Oilers. Lo said that his younger brother, Evan, a classically trained opera singer, will perform the National Anthem.
"It's going to be cool," Lo said.
Newport Harbor (8-5)
14...Corona del Mar...34
27...*Los Alamitos...24 (overtime)
(*denotes Sunset League game; ^denotes CIF playoff game)
Huntington Beach (8-5)
42…^San Juan Hills…12
(*denotes Sunset League game; ^denotes CIF playoff game)