Highlanders win back-and-forth battle with Chargers
By Jason Burch
La Habra Journal
It wasn’t the dominant performance the faithful blue and white clad fans have grown accustomed to seeing the past few years, but the Highlanders kicked off the 2016-17 season with a hard fought victory over El Toro on Friday night. Spurred by Eli Anderson’s successful debut at running back and a physically imposing defense, La Habra wore the Chargers down and held on for the 42-36 win.
Head Coach Frank Mazzotta’s decision to put his former starting safety in the backfield payed off for the Highlanders. Anderson, the former two-year defensive starter did not disappoint, reaching the end zone four times, highlighted by a dazzling 72-yard breakaway run midway through the first quarter to put the Highlanders on the board.
“Eli is learning, he’s 205 pounds of muscle, he’s got great feet and sees things pretty well out there, but he just doesn’t know how to run the ball yet.” Mazzotta said after the game. “Eli is such a good athlete we wanted to try him at running back, I think he will get better and just be a force for us.”
Mazzotta said the one thing he needs to really focus on is getting his pad level down, and not running upright through the hole.
“There is always room to improve, I just want to win another ring and help the team succeed any way that I can.” Anderson said. “Today was ok, but I think that I can do even better the next game, I like running back because I feel that I can have a bigger impact on the game, so I’m trying to grow into it.”
Leading up to the season opener, the quarterback-play was a legitimate concern for the Highlanders. Merely three weeks ago, Mazzotta was still uncertain who would be under center come opening night. Junior Zach Fogel earned the job and led the offense for the majority of the game.
Fogel was largely inconsistent against the Chargers, especially in the first half, where he completed less than five passes. However, Fogel shook off his early woes on his first toss of the second half, connecting on a short pass over the middle to Pervis Henderson, who made one Charger defender miss and bolted for a 73-yard touchdown.
Fogel’s most impressive throw came later in the third quarter, when he connected with Henderson again on a 54-yard go-route for his second score of the game. With the El Toro defense bearing down on him, Fogel stood in the pocket and lofted a nicely thrown ball up the home sideline as he was lifted off his feet and driven into the ground by Charger pass rushers.
“Zach is tough, there’s no doubt about it, but he has got a lot of work to do,” Mazzotta said. “He needs to work on a lot of little things.”
“I thought Pervis was the main difference for us, he had some huge plays tonight,” Mazzotta said.
Matt Freem highlighted El Toro’s scoring attack. The kicker went made five-of-six attempts and added a couple PAT’s as well. Freem’s lone miss, came on a 44-yard attempt in the third quarter, and it had plenty of distance, it just sailed wide left by a couple feet.
The La Habra defense played physical all night, perhaps too physical at times. Nearly all of El Toro’s scoring opportunities throughout the game were setup by penalty calls. The Highlanders were hit with a slew of unnecessary roughness, hitting a defenseless receiver, roughing the quarterback and unsportsmanlike conduct calls from start to finish.
The referees finally reached their boiling point in the fourth quarter. Highlander defensive back, Josh Gichuru was ejected after another helmet-to-helmet on a defenseless receiver flag was thrown, immediately followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct call. The Charger receiver remained on the ground for several minutes after the collision as Gichuru and other La Habra defenders celebrated the hit.
Linebacker Marcus Carrasco stood out on defense. The senior had several big tackles and a fumble recovery to seal the victory. But his biggest play came through the air, when he read El Toro quarterback Connor Jones’ eyes and jumped in front of an out route for the interception and 33-yard touchdown return.
La Habra will look to tighten up the penalties and hope to get some consistency out of the passing game when they take travel to Rancho Santa Margarita next Friday to take on Tesoro at 7 p.m.
“Everything, honest to god, everything,” Mazzotta said about what his team needs to improve. “We didn’t do anything really good, we did some things ok, but there is a lot of work to do.