Gardena Serra takes to the ground to beat Chaminade

Serra running back Cincere Rhaney runs into the Chaminade secondary.
Serra running back Cincere Rhaney runs into the Chaminade secondary on Friday night.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

You never know when Scott Altenberg is kidding. The Gardena Serra coach has seen his team suffer crippling injuries and disruptive COVID-19 shutdowns. Before his team’s Mission League opener on Friday night against West Hills Chaminade, he insisted he didn’t know if quarterback Maalik Murphy would play. Several other players were pulled because of contact tracing protocols. Altenberg was advising a sportswriter not to show up.

What transpired was perhaps Altenberg’s best coaching performance ever. The Cavaliers used three running backs to control the clock and the game, and Serra came away with an improbable 16-12 victory, achieving another memorable moment in a series that has had many.

“Yeah!” Murphy screamed on the field after shaking hands with Chaminade players afterward.


Murphy injured his shoulder against Downey Warren and was used more as a decoy against the Eagles (4-2, 1-1). If only Chaminade had realized he couldn’t pass the ball very far. He completed nine of 11 passes for 52 yards.

“Maalik really couldn’t throw past five yards, but he could manage a game,” Altenberg said. “We just ran the ball. We have three great backs.”

Serra running backs Cincere Rhaney (88 yards rushing), Troy Crozier (74 yards) and and Kai Honda (39 yards) kept getting handoffs from Murphy. They’d start running inside, then break outside. The Eagles never adjusted. Three times in the third quarter, Serra was able to pick up first downs on a decisive ``13-play, 65-yard drive that ended with Rhaney scoring on a 13-yard run for a 16-6 lead. Serra ran off the final 8:08 of the game to protect its 16-12 lead. Every play was a run.

“You’ve never seen a Serra team run the ball 40 times like that,” Altenberg said.

Serra (3-3, 1-0) hadn’t played a game since Sept. 17 against Carson after being shutdown by Los Angeles County Public Health for COVID-19 protocols. The off time allowed Murphy to heal and also enabled the team’s fastest player, Rodrick Pleasant, to play for the first time since August after suffering a high ankle sprain in the season opener. He delivered a key kickoff return to set up a 23-yard field goal by Honda to give Serra a 9-6 halftime lead.

Chaminade coach Ed Croson and Altenberg have been competing against each since 2010. They know each other so well it’s almost like watching a chess match. Each was trying to find a weakness in the first half. Serra, knowing that Murphy was limited because he still hasn’t fully recovered from a joint injury, relied on the running game. Crozier had an eight-yard touchdown run.

Chaminade came out passing with quarterback Indiana Wijay. That didn’t work. He was one-of-six passing. In the second quarter, Amari Powell, a running quarterback, set up the Eagles in scoring position with a 37-yard completion to Josh Mailander. Then the short-yardage quarterback, Jacob Macias, got the ball to Noah Elliott for a one-yard touchdown and a 6-6 tie.

Elliott ran for two touchdowns. Chaminade’s defense just couldn’t stop the Cavaliers’ running game.