By Jason Burch
La Habra Journal
La Habra’s Cinderella CIF run came to end Friday night at home, as the Highlanders dropped a wild shootout to Murrieta Valley 62-43 in the semifinal matchup.
The normally stout Highlander defense was undone by the precision right arm of Nighthawk quarterback Hank Bachmeier and the explosive legs of running back Olita Palmer.
Palmer, who began the game with just under 2000 yards on the season, carried the ball 37 times for 290 yards and reached the end zone four times. Palmer credited his offensive line and said he was just following them all night.
“This was just an emotional game, we went into the locker room like we didn’t want the season to end,” Palmer said. “We like going to practice, I like being surrounded by this group of guys and I’ll do anything for them.”
Bachmeier’s accuracy was on full display, as the sophomore completed 23-27 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns. He also added 56 yards rushing.
“That’s a really good offense, they have everything,” said La Habra Head Coach Frank Mazzotta. “They have a good quarterback-check, running back-check, receivers-check and offensive line-check.”
Mazzotta added that there was so much talent on the field tonight that it felt like a college game, and the score reflected that.
The Highlanders actually got on the board first. On the opening drive, quarterback Zach Fogel quickly moved the offense down the field 61 yards on six plays before Madison Wheeler punched it in from three yards out.
Murrieta Valley answered back right away. After each team had a pair of possessions the score was knotted at 14.
The Highlanders finally stumbled on their third possession, going three-and-out after being hit with their fourth false start penalty of the first quarter.
The Nighthawks took the lead on the next possession when Bachmeier connected with Marquis Spiker from 18 yards out for the duo’s second of three scores of the night.
The Highlanders successfully slowed down and beat two high powered offenses, in Oaks Christian and Redlands East Valley, in the first two rounds of CIF, but had no answer for Murrieta Valley all night.
After forcing five interceptions and making key stops in critical situations the previous two weeks, the Highlanders failed to stop the Nighthawks from scoring on a single possession until they fumbled the ball with 3:09 left in the game. However, by then the game was already out of reach.
“We took ourselves out of our element,” said linebacker and leading tackler Camron Rivas. “It’s not all about X’s and O’s, it’s about who wants it more and they wanted it more tonight.”
Rivas had double digit tackles in all three playoff games this season, picking up right where he left off in 2015, when Rivas was named the divisional Defensive Player of the Year in CIF Southern Section.
“I would never point the finger at our defense at all,” Fogel said. “They are playing the best ball they have played in a long time, I think our
defense has some great leaders and is full of fighters, but Murrieta just had more playmakers tonight.”
La Habra’s offensive unit was impressive as well, scoring on six of the first eight possessions.
Fogel threw for 220 yards with two touchdowns and added 92 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, including a 44-yard keeper that he took into the end zone untouched that tied the game at 21 early in the second quarter.
Prince Ross caught three passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. Ross also broke free for an 80 yard touchdown run a few minutes before halftime to bring the Highlanders within a score. But the Nighthawks wound up adding another score with just :18 left in the second quarter to make it 42-28 at the half. La Habra kept pace, but couldn’t cut it below two scores the rest of the way.
Wheeler ran the ball effectively for the third consecutive week, but because La Habra was playing from behind the entire second half, Mazzotta
couldn’t stick with the running game as much as he would have liked to. Wheeler collected 91 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries, and added 27 yards receiving.
“I’m so proud of how much we improved this year,” Mazzotta said. “This team was so much fun, they came to practice everyday and worked their asses off, they were really a lot of fun to be around.”
The Highlanders end the season at 8-5, one game shy of a rematch with San Clemente for the chance at back-to-back CIF titles, so they were understandably downtrodden afterwards. However coming in to the playoffs as the No. 14 seed, the 2016 Highlander football team far-exceeded expectations in the CIF tournament.
“It’s a bitter-sweet moment right now, I’m blessed that I had an opportunity to do this for four years and to do it at the level I did it at,” Rivas said afterwards reflecting on his final game. “I just want thank my coaches, thank my teammates and thank God most importantly, I’m truly grateful and truly blessed, I can’t even say how much I love this place.”
“The hardest thing about this is seeing my guys and knowing how hard we fought, but I couldn’t be more proud of my guys,” Fogel added. “I think we really grew as a brotherhood this year.”