Big turnover lifts Heralds to homecoming win
by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
With all the offense displayed Friday night, it was only fitting that a takeaway was the turning point in the Whittier Christian football team’s 41-34 Homecoming win over Heritage Christian at Whittier College, Friday night.
But the bizarre moment wasn’t in the takeaway itself, it was who came up with it.
With the Heralds clinging to a 24-21 lead midway through the third quarter, Ryan Esslinger intercepted a pass by Warriors quarterback Jacob Padilla. With a personal foul added onto the return, the turnover set up the Heralds at the Heritage Christian 18-yard line.
On the next play, running back Nick Watase dashed to the left for a touchdown, giving the Heralds a 31-21 lead and much-needed breathing room. It was the first time either team led by more than four points.
“It felt great just to help my team out,” Esslinger said. “I’ve always dreamed of playing defense, I’ve been bugging my coaches all year, but it was fun to actually be out there and get a pick.”
To say the Heralds relied heavily on the rushing attack may be an understatement. Watase carried the ball 57 times for 304 yards and two touchdowns, but also lost a fumble late in the first half.
However, Esslinger was given a freedom at the quarterback position that he hadn’t seen since Week 0. Wide receiver Noah Evans was left in single coverage.
Esslinger took full advantage, completing 14 passes to Evans alone for 150 yards and three touchdowns. Overall, the senior quarterback completed 20-of-30 passes for 188 yards.
“If teams are going to single coverage him, then we are going to throw him the ball,” said Sergio Gradilla, Whittier Christian head coach. “He’s big, strong, he has great hands and teams are going to have to figure out whether they want to take someone out of the box, or single cover. Either way, with the way Nick’s been running, I feel like we can do some damage.”
But the Warriors’ big play ability would cause the Heralds fits for most of the evening. Of Heritage Christian’s five touchdowns, four were scored on plays of 40 yards or more.
Two of those scores came on the very first play of their respective drives.
Receiver Alex Alcala was a big factor for Heritage Christian, catching eight passes for 210 yards and three scores. He also scored on a 65-yard rushing touchdown.
“It’s something we need to fix, that’s for sure,” Gradilla said. “That can’t happen, a one-play drive cannot happen. We need to look at film and correct it because Maranatha loves to throw and use screens. It’s going to be tough.”
The first half was a seesaw battle that saw five lead changes. Derek Brush opened up the scoring with a 24-yard field goal on the Heralds’ first drive.
The Warriors (3-5, 0-2) took their first lead on a 40-yard bubble screen pass from Padilla to Alcala.
However, on the ensuing drive, Esslinger hit Evans just past the goal line for a four-yard touchdown to reclaim the lead.
Padilla and Alcala hooked up for a 63-yard score, which was followed by a five-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive by Watase as the Heralds took a 17-14 lead at the break.
After exchanging the lead once more to start the third quarter, Esslinger’s interception gave the Heralds (5-3, 2-1) a chance to put pressure on their opponent.
They didn’t hesitate.
Brush added a 31-yard field goal to give the Heralds their biggest lead of the night at 34-21.
But once again, the Warriors stormed back. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Padilla pitched the ball to Alcala, who found a seam near the right sideline and raced 65 yards for the score.
After Esslinger hit Evans for a six-yard score, Padilla hit Alcala once more for an 86-yard touchdown pass, with Alcala using his breakaway speed to carry him to the endzone.
Using Watase and its big offensive line, Whittier Christian would keep the ball away from the Warriors for the remainder of the fourth quarter, leading to the team’s second consecutive league win.
“I’m pretty sore, but it felt good to get all the carries,” Watase said. “I have to give credit to the offensive line, they did a great job tonight.”
Added Gradilla, “I didn’t think we would give the ball to him that many times. I told the guys that if there was a game ball, I would give it to the offensive line, but he deserves it too. He’s just a stud.”
Esslinger added 92 rushing yards on 14 attempts. The Heralds one-upped last week’s rushing attack with 412 yards on the ground against Heritage Christian.
Whittier Christian takes the consecutive wins into perhaps its biggest game of the year, a showdown with Maranatha next Friday at Maranatha High.
A win would keep the Heralds’ hopes of a fourth consecutive league title alive.
“We knew we needed this win,” Esslinger said. “This was a big game with Homecoming and everything, but to get this win and have the opportunity to go into next week and possibly play for a league championship is huge.”
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