VALENCIA — When Crescenta Valley High, Glendale and St. Francis' respective seven-on-seven squads began Wednesday afternoon, the three local teams were scattered across the Santa Clarita Valley.
But as the afternoon's proceedings were coming to a close, it was the surprising Nitros who were the last local standing at the College of the Canyons Passing Tournament.
With a little good fortune and some high drama, the Michael Davis-led Nitros climbed to the semifinal round of the tournament before falling to Moorpark, 24-12.
"The team is getting better," said Davis, who hauled in five touchdowns in two games for Glendale. "We still need to work on things, but we're a lot better than we were last year."
Davis hauled in three touchdowns, including a length-of-the-field 40-yarder on the second-to-last play of a 30-26 win over perennial power Palmdale in the second round to advance to the semifinals.
"The Palmdale win was a big win for us," said Bill Irace, Glendale's defensive coordinator, who took the helm of the Nitros with Coach Alan Eberhart dealing with family obligations.
Crescenta Valley fell a round earlier in a nailbiter to Hart, losing, 28-26, in triple overtime.
"It was an awesome game," said Falcons Coach Paul Schilling. "These passing leagues, most of them you don't care [about wins and losses], but you get into the tournament, there's eight teams left, it's us, it's Hart. … Then it's a little different than just a passing day. That's why we do so many of these."
St. Francis lost in the opening round of tournament play, 30-12, to eventual tournament winner Alemany, which defeated Hart in the semifinals and Moorpark in the finals.
The Golden Knights, who went 2-2 on Monday in pool play, began their day at Hart High and ended it there, as well.
As was the case with every St. Francis game in the tourney, the Golden Knights took a lead, jumping out to a 12-0 advantage, as Ryan McAleenan and Travis Talianko hauled in touchdown passes from quarterback Jared Lebowitz, a much-ballyhooed transfer from Vermont. Alemany rallied for 30 straight points, however.
Nonetheless, St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds was happy that his team rebounded to win its finale against Canyon Country Canyon, 14-8, behind a strong defensive effort led by defensive backs Billy McCreary and Parker Nieves.
"I was really happy with the way [the defense] came on against Canyon," said Bonds, who was also impressed with his team gaining a win over a Cowboys squad that defeated it in pool play on Monday. "It's good to see that improvement."
Lebowitz connected with receiver Christian Hess for a 6-0 score, as Hess made a nice grab on a low ball.
"Christian Hess has been, I'd say, one of our most improved players," said Bonds, adding that two-way starters and reigning All-Area selections Talianko, Nieves and McAleenan have all produced in the summer.
A McCreary interception put St. Francis up, 8-2, before a Lebowitz-Nieves hookup over the middle put the game away at 14-2.
As for Lebowitz, who will take over for reigning All-Area Player of the Year Brett Nelson, he has shown the ability, in particular his arm strength, that has garnered him some buzz, but is also working to build chemistry with his new teammates and learn the offense.
"He's still learning the offense. I think that'll come," Bonds said. "He can make all the throws. He throws a nice deep ball."
Schilling was particularly happy with his core trio of quarterback Zac Wilkerson, returning running back Marro Lee and receiver Nick Ruiz, who shined on Wednesday with some big catches.
"Ruiz was unbelievable, he caught everything," Schilling said.
The Falcons, who went 2-1-1 on Tuesday, opened up with Taft at College of the Canyons and struggled catching the ball for the most part. So too did Taft, though, as Crescenta Valley prevailed, 26-18.
Wilkerson opened the scoring with a TD toss to Dylan McGovern before rolling out and finding Ruiz for a 14-0 advantage after Justin Springfield had notched an interception. Crescenta Valley took a 20-6 lead when Wilkerson hit Lee underneath for a score.
Lee was well on his way to a big season at running back last season before a season-ending thumb injury.
"I know when I came back it took me a while to get used to catching," Lee said. "It feels good to be back."
The Falcons were able to defense a fairly predictable vertical Taft passing game early on before Taft mounted a late comeback thanks to the long ball. But another Wilkerson-to-Lee scoring hookup and a big deflection on a go-route by Kevin Cooper sealed the win.
Against Hart, Ruiz had an interception and a scoring grab, while Lee added two touchdowns, the last of which tied the game on the Falcons' last regulation possession. Lee hauled in another Wilkerson pass to go up 26-20 in the second overtime, but Hart tied it on a controversial bobble at the back of the end zone. A Hart interception on CV's ensuing possession won the game.
"I think we're a lot better than last year," Lee said, "and our team chemistry's better. It's a great time to build that."
Just as CV was going into overtime, Glendale was celebrating a furious rally over Palmdale.
Before that, the Nitros began the day at West Ranch High and advanced past Chaminade via forfeit.
Against the Falcons, Evan Norton, filling in for usual starting quarterback Alex Yoon, hit Davis on a 40-yard bomb to pull the Nitros to a 26-24 deficit. The Glendale defense held and Norton threw another long ball to Davis in the same spot on the Nitros' ensuing offensive play for a 30-26 lead and the defense held for one remaining play. Davis finished the contest with three touchdown grabs, while Norton also hit Tony Collins and Muhammad Ahkatar on scoring throws.
Norton and Davis hooked up for two more scores to give Glendale leads of 6-0 and 12-6 against Moorpark in the semifinals, but the offense went stagnant thereafter, as Norton's accuracy waned and the Nitros' receivers dropped their share of balls.
Nonetheless, it was a big day for the Nitros, a team that still struggles to attract athletes the caliber of Davis, the reigning Pacific League champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
"We need more players to come out," Irace said. "If we had kids from other sports come out for football, we would be an overall better athletic school."
For now, though, summer league or not, Wednesday proved to be a highlight for the Nitros.
"It was pretty big for us," Davis said. "It kinda boosted our self-esteem."