NORTH HILLS — While the final 24 minutes were certainly grueling for both sides, the Flintridge Prep football team's nonleague contest at Heritage Christian on Saturday afternoon was essentially decided in the first half.
All the scoring in the 19-16 affair, won by the host Warriors to send the Rebels to an 0-2 start, was contained in a first half in which Prep at times looked poised to dominate the game with its physical advantage on the front line. But three lost Prep fumbles before halftime kept the game close and a quick 74-yard touchdown drive allowed Heritage Christian a go-ahead score with 1:01 left in the second quarter, which would stand as the game-winner.
"Three fumbles in the first [half], it's the same story as last week — we compete, but we're beating ourselves," said Prep Coach Antonio Harrison, whose team lost a two touchdown lead in the fourth quarter in losing its opener to Army-Navy the previous week. "We had this team on their heels, they couldn't stop the sweep."
Stefan Smith rushed for 123 yards in 15 carries and had a 66-yard touchdown to lead the rushing attack for the Rebels, who also saw Kyle Hamane (67 yards in six carries) rush for a touchdown and a pair of two-point conversions. But as the oppressive heat and unforgiving artificial turf began to wear down the Rebels, fewer and fewer of their big guns were to be found on the field and it took its toll on the offense.
Smith and Hamane, along with running back Kurt Kozacik, all joined starting wideout Kareem Ismail, who hurt his ankle in the first half, on the bench for large parts of the second half, during which Prep mustered just 67 yards of total offense.
Heritage Christian (3-0) didn't have much more success sustaining its second-half drives, but did come up with a game-ending play on third and 15 to go with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter when quarterback Alex Alcala found tight end Andy Hoeks for an 18 yard gain to the Rebels' nine-yard line, where the Warriors were able to run out the clock.
"We've got four of our starters down because of dehydration and heat exhaustion," Harrison said. "If it was my call, we wouldn't play a single afternoon game, especially not on this turf stuff. But there's nothing we can do, they gotta come out and play and once we stop beating ourselves, we'll see a mark in the win column."
Prep's fumbling problem first reared its head on the very first drive of the game, when Kozacik coughed one up inside the Warriors' 30-yard line. Heritage Christian turned around and marched the ball 76 yards for a 7-0 lead on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Alcala, who rolled out to his right and connected with Cameron Massey in the right corner of the end zone at the 6:38 mark of the first period.
It was the first completion of the game for Alcala after he replaced injured starter Tyler Noe with about five minutes elapsed in the first quarter. Alcala would capably lead Heritage Christian's option attack, completing 14 of 22 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another.
The Rebels moved the ball briskly behind a strong running attack on their next drive, as well, and this time were rewarded with a two-yard Hamane touchdown run and go-ahead conversion at the 2:32 mark to cap a nine-play, 49-yard march.
Prep's defense then stopped Heritage Christian on the Rebels' 22-yard line to take over on downs, but the Warriors got the ball right back on a fumble and moved it all the way to the Rebels' 12-yard line, only to misfire on a 28-yard field goal attempt. Just one play later, though, Prep fumbled yet again and this time the Warriors easily drove 21 yards in four plays to take a 13-8 lead with 6:33 left in the second quarter on a one-yard Alcala keeper.
Smith brought some life back to the Rebels when he broke a 66-yard run on third-and-14 to make it 16-13 with 2:31 left.
But on second and two from his own 34-yard line, Alcala beautifully sold a play-action fake to set up a 60-yard passing gain that was the precursor to Hoeks' go-ahead touchdown catch from three yards out.
"It's just another blown coverage and right before that we had a turnover they converted into points," Harrison said. "We're small numbers. We have to play both ways, we have to play the whole game and guys have to be prepared for that."