By Austin Green
There is leaving it all out on the field, and then there is what the Polytechnic and Arcadia Rio Hondo Prep football teams did at the Rose Bowl last Friday evening. The grand old mecca of college football has hosted countless games of all types in its century of existence, but none quite like what the two longtime Prep League rivals had in store in both schools’ first time playing at the historic stadium.
In their lone game of the 2020-21 academic year, Poly fell to Rio Hondo by a score of 8-7 when the Panthers’ field goal attempt with time running out was blocked.
Poly led for nearly the entire second half before Rio Hondo scored on its final drive of the game with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Kares head coach Mark Carson opted to go for a two-point conversion, and his gamble paid off when fullback Ryan McCulloch bulldozed his way into the end zone to give Rio Hondo the lead and, eventually, the win.
“We had to try and get one more score up there and we had lots of opportunities because I thought [if we scored] 14, it was gonna be real tough for them. But we just never got into a rhythm offensively and that’s how it goes,” Poly head coach Chris Schmoke said. “It was a hell of a game, man. I couldn’t be prouder of these kids.”
It was the type of old-school, smashmouth, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust affair that more closely resembled the Rose Bowl games of the early 20th century than the high-scoring contests that the stadium often hosts these days.
With this game being the only one Poly would play over a nearly two-year span, as well as the finale of Rio Hondo’s truncated three-game spring schedule, emotions ran high throughout. The sidelines buzzed, players hit hard and yelled harder, and coaches screamed at the field and at the officials.
The energy helped make up for the lack of all but a handful of fans in the cavernous 90,000-seat Rose Bowl. Yards were hard to come by and drives nearly impossible to finish as both defenses played a nearly flawless game. Poly forced three turnovers, including two on punt returns, while RHP forced two.
The palpable enthusiasm was easy to understand — that this game was even being played at all was no small miracle. It was originally scheduled for March 19, only to be canceled the night before due to COVID-19 contact tracing issues. Both schools sacrificed to make the rescheduled date work — Poly practiced and played during its two-week spring break while Rio Hondo extended its season by another week, according to Poly athletic director Steve Beerman. The result was a three-hour roller coaster of catharsis for both sides.
“This isn’t particular to Poly, but I think this pandemic has been real tough on these kids, in particular kids who are seniors who are looking for that culminating moment,” Schmoke said. “These are the dudes who stuck it out through September, October, and got to the night before a game then had it canceled and then during their spring break trying to get practices in and get ready and all that.”
Poly struggled all game to find some momentum on offense, but its defense and special teams play more than made up for that initially. After a three-and-out midway through the second quarter, the Panthers caught a break when Rio Hondo fumbled the ensuing punt return and the ball was recovered by Poly’s Nathaniel Marko on the one-yard line. However, the Kares defense put together a masterful goalline stand as Poly immediately went backwards, losing ground on three straight plays before quarterback Colin Mathews was strip-sacked and Rio Hondo’s Brandon Davis returned the fumble recovery to midfield.
The Kares got the ball into Poly territory, but Poly defensive back Connor Boyle picked off Rio Hondo quarterback Jack Van Cleve to end the scoring threat. Then, after another three and out, Rio Hondo fumbled away the punt return again, this time on the 16-yard line.
Poly did not waste this opportunity, and three plays later, running back Sam Howell darted into the end zone to give Poly a 7-0 lead.
Rio Hondo nearly tied the game on the ensuing possession, but Poly got a key stop on the seven-yard line just before halftime.
The second half was largely more of the same — the Panthers struggled to find much success on offense while their defense bent but did not break, preserving the lead.
Rio Hondo snapped the shutout bid late in the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to their leading rusher Jonathan Gurrero, who took four carries in six plays to help the Kares get to the one-yard line. Van Cleve then scored on a quarterback sneak.
Rio Hondo needed just one more stop to seal the game, and they almost did not get it when a pass from Mathews to Howell put Poly on RHP’s 22-yard line. But a botched snap turned into a six-yard loss, a false start and two incompletions later appeared to push Poly out of field goal range. However, a pass interference call on the Kares moved the Panthers back up. Ultimately, it did not matter — a would-be game-winning kick attempt barely left the ground before it was blocked.
Afterward, there was hardly a dry eye on Poly’s sideline. Schmoke interrupted an interview to embrace his seniors amid sobs, expressing love and pride in how hard they fought and the type of people they have become, vowing to be there for however they needed him in the future. As much as the loss stung, the longtime Panthers coach beamed through tears when talking about his players.
“I’m just extraordinarily proud because it’s a great group of kids, period,” Schmoke said. “Win, lose, draw, anything else, just a great group of kids and that stems from this group of seniors. They’re just fantastic human beings and that’s the most important thing that I could say about anybody… They’re just a fantastic group of kids and they’re gonna go on and do amazing things in life.”
Mathews, Poly’s junior quarterback, had nine completions on 21 attempts for 53 yards. Senior running back Connor Boyle had nine total yards on one catch and seven carries. Junior running back Mathias Olson had 78 yards on five carries and a four-yard catch, while Howell had 30 total yards on two catches and two carries. Junior wide receivers Robby MarionSims and Jason Mayo had three catches for 23 yards and one carry for seven yards, respectively.
On the Rio Hondo side, Van Cleve had seven passes on 18 attempts for 82 yards and an interception. Gurrero led all rushers with 142 yards on 28 carries and McCulloch added nine carries for 60 yards. Wide receiver Gio Ortega had 80 total yards on six catches and two carries while fellow receiver Ryan Olivas had one catch for 16 yards.
Schmoke also had one promise to his outgoing seniors — that their legacy would be used as motivation for Poly to beat Rio Hondo Prep when they face off next.
“I have a ton of respect for [Rio Hondo’s] program and their kids and their coaches,” Schmoke said. “They do things the right way, they play tough football. And for our kids, we’re young… They’ll be back. And they’ll be ready to go.”