LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Culture change has been what new La Cañada High football Coach James Sims has been preaching since he was hired to take over the program at the end of March.
Well, the Spartans certainly looked different in their season and home opener Thursday night against Alhambra, and it wasn't just their new “throwback” uniforms.
La Cañada used a dominating run game – spearheaded by senior back Andy Paynter, who racked up 159 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries – three methodical and time draining drives to defeat the Moors, 17-7.
“La Cañada football feels real different,” said senior wide receiver, defensive back and kicker Mario Del Cueto, who gave his team a 10-point lead with a 29-yard field goal with 6:38 remaining to cap the scoring and help seal the win. “It's good to come out hard and do what we do every down. The camaraderie on the team is something I've never seen before and that's going to lead us to a lot of victories this year.”
The new uniforms certainly didn't hurt either, Del Cueto said.
“I love it, we've got the gold and a little bit of a throwback look,” Del Cueto said. “I think we look real good – look good, feel good, play good.”
Paynter and Sims stressed the team not get too high after the game, as they were still some reasons for concern – mainly the 16 penalties La Cañada racked up for 120 yards.
“It's a good feeling, but we need to step it up as a team,” said Paynter, who credited his big game to his offensive line. “I don't think we performed as well as we could, I don't think I performed as well as I could. I think I can do better. We just need to fix all the mistakes and we should be OK by the time league comes around.”
The Spartans never trailed Thursday, as Paynter broke a tie to put them up, 14-7, when he capped off a nine-play (all runs) 60-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run 24 seconds before the end of the first half.
La Cañada's trek down the field took three minutes and 36 seconds off the clock, as it started at its own 41 and quickly found itself at Alhambra's 41 after Brad Woolf broke a 20-yard run to start the drive, which included four Paynter runs for 19 yards.
It appeared the Spartans put the game away with 7:58 to go when fullback Johnny Selsor broke a 10-yard touchdown run only to have it called back on a holding penalty — one of five La Cañada committed on the night. Two more penalties nearly ended the Spartans’ quest for points, as they pushed them all the way back to the 32-yard line.
“We still got a lot of work to do,” Sims said. “We had over 100-something yards in penalties. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot and with a team that can put us away we're going to be in trouble.
“This was our first time playing anybody since I've been here so it's a good show for our first time, but we've got a lot of homework, a lot.”
La Cañada quarterback Matt Jones, who completed two of seven passes for 32 yards and ran for 50, put his team in field goal position at the 13-yard line when he found Owen, who finished with 51 rushing yards, with a 19-yard pass on third and goal to set up Del Cueto's field goal for the two-possession lead.
“It was big from the senior,” Sims said of the kick. “I really appreciated it. It made the difference in the game, it changed their offense and what they could do.”
Alhambra moved the ball down to the Spartans’ 29-yard line with just over four minutes left, but the drive ended when La Cañada linebacker Justin Ruta forced a fumble on a sack. The ball was recovered by Spartans defensive lineman Durresa Hinika with 59 seconds to go to seal the victory.
It was one of two Alhambra fumbles La Cañada recovered, as Jadon Henry stripped a ball, which was recovered by Todd Murray at the Spartans’ 10-yard line with 5:44 to go in the game.
La Cañada first got on the board when Jones hit Murray, a sophomore tight end, with a 13-yard touchdown pass on the first drive of the game. It capped an eight-play, 66-yard drive that included seven rushes, including a 22-yard run from Paynter and a 10-yard scamper by Owen on third and 10 to keep the drive alive.
Alhambra answered back on its second drive on an Armando Amaya three-yard quarterback sneak for a score with 2:38 left in the half. The touchdown was set up by a 58-yard run from Ezra Broadus, who finished with 82 rushing and 33 receiving yards.
“I think we came out a little cocky this week, that's just what I thought, but we're going to come back ready and be able to take on Glendale,” said Paynter, whose Spartans host the Nitros September 7 at 7 p.m. “You'll see a good game.