Inspired Gardena Serra claims Division 1-A state football title

Gardena Serra quarterback Maalik Murphy hands off to running back Cincere Rhaney.
Gardena Serra quarterback Maalik Murphy hands off to running back Cincere Rhaney against Bakersfield Liberty on Saturday.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

All the inspiration Gardena Serra football players needed heading into Saturday afternoon’s CIF state championship Division 1-A bowl game arrived on campus shortly before the bus left for the hour-long ride to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. It came courtesy of Robert Woods.

The proud alum, whose highlight-reel catches at wideout led the Cavaliers to their first state bowl win in 2009 before starring at USC and now in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams, left each of them a gift they will not soon forget.

“After we got our jerseys and pants there were some Rams personnel there handing out red Beats headphones with our numbers engraved on the inside,” Serra running back and punter Kai Honda said. “He must have looked at our roster to know who was who, but it was an awesome thing to do and that fired us up so much.”


As it has all season, Serra showed grit and determination to hang on for a 21-16 victory over Bakersfield Liberty even when quarterback Maalik Murphy was sidelined because of an injury with 7:21 left.

It was the third state bowl win for Serra (11-4), which most recently defeated Oakdale 42-15 in the Division II final in 2012. “All year we battle through injuries, guys had to play both ways,” coach Scott Altenberg said of his 201st career victory. “I’m super proud of this group.”

Two plays after Honda’s 41-yard punt rolled sideways out of bounds at the Liberty one-yard line, defensive back Tre’ Harrison returned an interception 10 yards for a touchdown for a 21-9 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Just before that, Murphy had to be helped off the field after being sacked for a 12-yard loss on third down.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young became the third Mater Dei graduate to win the Heisman Trophy; his Cathedral and Mater Dei coaches could see it coming.

Dec. 11, 2021

“It was our dream and we accomplished it, this team has so much fight” said Murphy, who hobbled through the trophy presentation on crutches, his right ankle wrapped in ice.

Murphy threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Honda to complete a 13-play, 79-yard drive to move the Southern Section Division 3 champions in front 14-9 with 6:17 left in the third quarter.


“We were all focused on Maalik when he went down, we knew we had to step up and finish it off for him,” Honda said.

After Dylan Lynch kicked a 28-yard field goal to give Liberty a 3-0 lead midway through the opening quarter, Troy Crozier completed a 13-play, 80-yard drive with an 11-yard sweep.

Liberty (11-3), which had won eight straight games, retook the lead 9-7 when quarterback Carson Woods broke free for a 38-yard touchdown.

Gardena Serra quarterback Malik Murphy leaps over Bakersfield Liberty defender Kresean Kizzy.
Gardena Serra quarterback Malik Murphy leaps over Bakersfield Liberty defender Kresean Kizzy in the first quarter Saturday.
(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Entering the game, Woods had passed for 2,141 yards with 23 touchdowns, but he was picked off twice, the second time by cornerback Dakota Fields with 5:07 left. Woods’ 13-yard scamper pulled the Patriots to within five with 1:31 left, but Crozier recovered an onside kick and the Cavaliers took three knees to end it.

When the clock ran out, Serra center Jalen Robinson asked the most important question: “Where are we going out to eat?”