Last Friday's season opener against El Camino Real in Woodland Hills will go in the books as a 24-21 loss, but as far as Palisades High head football coach Perry Jones is concerned, both teams walked away winners.
"It was just an amazing game and I'm super proud of the way our players responded after being down," said Jones, who lost to the same team 36-35 in his first game as the Dolphins' coach last September. "They showed a lot of heart and a lot of pride. That's a very good team and we outscored them in the second half, it was just too little, too late."
Ericson Penate kicked a 36-yard field goal with six seconds left to lift the host Conquistadores to victory, but the player of the game once again was El Camino Real running back Kawan Rally. He ran for 126 yards and four touchdowns and blocked a game-tying extra point attempt with 11 seconds left in last year's opener. This time, his long run set up his own team's game-winning kick.
"He's one heck of a strong running back," Jones said of Rally, who finished with 267 yards and three touchdowns in 33 carries. "We hit him and hit him and hit him... and he never showed any signs of fatigue or pain. He's a special player and he made believers out of us. It was like he was saying 'Just give me the ball.' And they gave him the ball."
Palisades missed a golden opportunity to score first when El Camino Real quarterback Matt Ramirez fumbled on the Conquistadores' first drive and the Dolphins recovered inside the opponents' 30-yard line. However, a fumbled exchange on Palisades' first play gave the ball right back to El Camino Real, which proceeded to eat up over eight minutes of clock while marching 71 yards, capped by Rally's 16-yard scoring run.
"I wasn't too upset about that first one because at least we made them earn it," Jones assessed. "I think they're every bit as good as last year. Defensively they're more disciplined and they didn't throw the ball a lot, but when they did they got first downs. They would've had a few more except we made some defensive plays to knock the ball away."
The Dolphins' defense managed to keep El Camino Real out of the end zone for the remainder of the first half despite the Conquistadores' big advantage in time of possession.
"We only ran nine or 10 plays on offense the whole first half and Nate (Dodson) had one completion," Jones said. "The explosiveness wasn't there, we weren't making the right reads, we were forcing a little, still we were only down 7-0. You gotta give it to their defense--they were in a 3-5, which we haven't seen, and they made it difficult for us."
Though he made no Vince Lombardi-type speech at halftime, Jones said he could sense his players were in the game mentally and knew what they had to do--particularly quarterback Nathan Dodson.
"There have been times we've gone in at halftime and made changes but this wasn't one of them," Jones said. "This was about them doing what they're supposed to do. With Nate it was a matter of getting him to relax, but I never considered benching him. We need Nate to figure it out because he's our guy. It was a gut check for him but he's such a great kid and he came through and did a great job in the second half."
The Dolphins' triple option finally started to click into gear on the opening drive of the third quarter and Palisades took six and a half minutes to tie it 7-7 on Ben Ingram's 22-yard run. However, Ingram was sidelined for the rest of the game after re-aggravating a strained quadricep he first suffered early in camp. Jones admitted he wasn't sure if Ingram would play Friday against Santa Monica.
"It could be a game-time decision," he said. "With our lack of depth, the one thing we don't want to do is rush him back before he's ready. I'd rather he miss one nonleague game than risk hurting it more and not being ready for league."
The Conquistadores answered Palisades' touchdown with two of their own, as Rally scored from one yard out late in the third quarter, then broke loose for a 52-yard touchdown that increased El Camino Real's lead to 21-7 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The 14-point deficit might have discouraged some teams, but not Palisades. After a touchback, the Dolphins took over at their own 20, but an illegal procedure penalty immediately moved them back five yards to the 15. On the first play, Arte' Miura took a hand-off up the middle and exploded for an 85-yard touchdown that pulled the Dolphins within a touchdown, 21-14.
"The second half was totally different than the first," Jones said. "It started with Nate--he was patient, he was reading, he was pitching and we started doing what we were supposed to do. If we execute properly, it's tough to slow us down."
Miura led the Dolphins with 167 yards rushing and his electrifying run seemed to fire up Palisades' defense, which knew it needed a turnover or a stop to get the offense the ball back.
Rather than punting, El Camino Real decided to go for it on fourth-and-two from its own 45, but the Dolphins were not fooled and tackled Rally on a pitch to take over on downs.
"That stand on fourth down was huge," Jones said. "Rally was killing us all game but we stopped him at a crucial time. The defense didn't fold and that bodes well for us going forward. That gave us the field position we needed and I knew we were going to score."
On the ensuing drive, Dodson kept the ball on an option to get the Dolphins inside the 10. Justin Sinclair's three-yard dive and Ricky Lynch's extra point kick tied the game 21-21 with 1:49 left.
"The fact that we were able to come back from the abyss shows how far we've come since the start of last year," Jones said. "We're at the point now where we've played in big games and the kids are getting used to pressure. They learned that from the playoffs last season."
As the clock ticked down, the Conquistadores faced a crucial third-and-long. Rally caught a swing pass from Ramirez and broke several tackles before being dragged down inside Palisades' 25. That set the stage for Penate's game-winning kick.
"What makes Rally so tough is his determination," Jones said. "You'll stop him for two yards here, three yards there and all of a sudden... boom! He reels off a 60-yarder. That flare pass was a great example. We had a man there, everyone in the world got a crack at him, he just made guys miss."
The kickoff went into the end zone, so no time elapsed. Palisades had one last play from its own 20 with six seconds left and sent everyone deep except for Miura, who circled out of the backfield and caught it underneath, but he was tackled inbounds, short of the first down, and time ran out.
"There were a lot of people there, they were loud and it was a great environment," Jones said. "From the time we tied it to the end it felt like a playoff game. It was an exciting game to coach. Nobody lost, everybody won."
Next up for the Dolphins is their intersectional "Battle by the Beach" with Santa Monica, which routed Leuzinger 35-0 in its opener.
"With Ben and Arte' in the backfield, I think we've got something special," Jones said. "Eric Jackson filled in for Ben and did great too, so offensively we'll score some points. The good news for us is that we're not new running the option. Defensively, if we can hold teams to 20 points or less it should be enough to win most of the time."
Score by Quarters
El Camino Real
El Camino Real -- Rally 16 run (Penate kick)
Palisades -- Ingram 22 run (Lynch kick)
El Camino Real -- Rally 1 run (Penate kick)
El Camino Real -- Rally 52 run (Penate kick)
Palisades -- Miura 85 run (Lynch kick)
Palisades -- Sinclair 3 run (Lynch kick)
El Camino Real -- Penate 36 field goal
Records: Palisades 0-1; El Camino Real 2-0.