Spartans fall, but earn playoff berth

La Cañada High's football team still had something to cheer about in the post-game huddle after losing to host Monrovia, 34-10, on Friday night.

"I told them we're not eliminated yet," said Spartans' Coach Dan Yoder, in regards to what got his team cheering. "The coin flip went our way."

Since La Cañada, Temple City and South Pasadena each finished the season with a 3-2 league record, a coin flip determined which team finished second, third and fourth in Rio Hondo. South Pasadena lost the coin flip, finishing fourth, which put La Cañada in third place, due to the fact that it lost to the Rams, 27-15, on Oct. 22.

The Spartans bid for a playoff as the third team in league was accepted.

They will play Covina, the No. 1-seeded team in the CIF Southern Section Mid-Valley Division, in a 7 p.m. Friday first-round game at Covina. The Colts are the Valle Vista League champions.

"It feels good, but we got our work cut out for us because we're going to be playing a No. 1 team," La Cañada quarterback Scott Gray said. "But I'd rather have a shot than no shot."

"It would have been better to beat Monrovia and control our own destiny instead of having to rely on an at-large bid, but it's great we still had a chance," La Cañada cornerback Jeff Barker said.

It looked like the Spartans (5-5, 3-2 in league) had a chance to pull off an upset early on against Monrovia. La Cañada played tough defense, effectively containing the Wildcats' (8-2, 5-0) primary offensive weapon, quarterback Nick Bueno, for most of the first half.

Monrovia was looking to score the game's first touchdown, driving the ball to the Spartans' 20-yard line after the teams traded field goals to tie the score at 3 early in the second quarter. But Bueno threw the ball right into the hands of Barker, who stepped in front of a Wildcat receiver and returned it to La Cañada 37-yard line.

"It felt good to help my team to stay in the game, but it wasn't enough in the end," said Barker, who had two interceptions for the second game in a row, which shifted momentum back to the Spartans.

Momentum shifted dramatically again when La Cañada was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive. The punt went for a negative-4 yards after nearly being blocked, putting Monrovia at La Cañada's 36. The Wildcats took advantage of the good field position, as Bueno rushed for a 36-yard touchdown on the next play, giving the Wildcats a 10-3 lead.

The touchdown seemed to get Bueno rolling, as he finished the game with 358 offensive yards (289 rushing and 69 passing) and two rushing touchdowns.

Bueno's speed and elusiveness made Spartans' defenders worry about him so much that it opened up room for Anthony Craft and Christian Blanco, who each ran for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a 31-3 lead late in the third quarter.

Although the game was in hand, the Spartans were desperate to get in the end zone after La Cañada defensive lineman Artin Khatchatourian recovered a Monrovia fumble at the Wildcats' 7-yard line. It took four plays to get those seven yards, but the Spartans were able to get the touchdown on a one-yard quarterback keeper from Gray.

"It was satisfying to get in there," said Gray, who had 135 total yards (77 passing and 58 rushing yards) and one rushing touchdown. "It was a small victory, but it still felt good."

The touchdown brought the game to 31-10, allowing La Cañada to score the most points against Monrovia than any other Rio Hondo League opponent this season. South Pasadena was the first team to score against the Wildcats last week, while losing, 48-7.

The average margin of victory for Monrovia in four league games was 48.5, while La Canada lost by 21.

"We went into the half hoping to have this team shocked a bit and I think we did," Yoder said.

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