It was one of those hot August nights in the Central Valley, but the Narbonne of Harbor City football team didn’t wilt and showed a lot of determination in defeating Buchanan of Clovis on Saturday night. Both teams entered in the top 12 of the preseason state rankings and both were preseason No. 1 teams in their CIF sections.
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All the Narbonne of Harbor City football team wanted to do on Saturday was just play.
Forgetting the heat of one of those 100-degree days in the Fresno area, forgetting about anything related to an ongoing Los Angeles Unified School District investigation and forgetting about playing on national television (ESPNU), the Gauchos gave up an early touchdown and pulled away in the second half to top Buchanan of Clovis 32-7 at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis.
“After the last game of last season when we lost to Cathedral Catholic (San Diego), we’ve been looking forward to this first game,” said Narbonne junior quarterback Jake Garcia, who had three touchdown passes. “We were looking to make a statement.”
Since then, Narbonne, which has won five straight CIF L.A. City Section titles, picked up several notable transfers, including one from Baltimore, wide receiver Traeshon Holden (committed to Alabama), who did not play on Saturday and is not yet eligible.
“We still have a couple of guys out, but this is the (Narbonne) team you’re going to see,” Garcia said.
What the Buchanan offense saw was a swarming defense that limited national recruit running back Kendall Milton to only a handful of runs of more than 10 yards. Milton’s return to the Bears this season (he recently committed to Georgia) is one of the main reasons that ESPN decided to put a game against Narbonne among its opening week’s slate of games. A game between St. John Bosco of Bellflower (No. 2 in California) and DeMatha of Hyattsville (Md.) was also played Saturday in Bellflower and was on ESPN2. The Gauchos’ high status (they could have 15 players or more on the roster with a Division 1 college scholarship in their future) was another, but in order to get the game to be played they had to drop a previously scheduled game with Long Beach Poly. The Jackrabbits agreed so the planning for Buchanan could begin.
The Bears scored on their first drive of the game as Milton showcased his power and ability to turn the corner. The 55-yard drive also was keyed on by a first down pass from junior quarterback R.J. Stevenson to junior receiver Stephen Shelley. Milton got the touchdown on a 15-yard run in which he dove over the end zone pylon.
After an interception on a tipped pass by returning all-state linebacker Jordan Banks gave it the ball on the Buchanan 31-yard line, Narbonne struck for its first touchdown on its second possession. A screen pass from Garcia to junior running back Jack Brown took the ball to the 11 and then Garcia found Elijah Queen (a junior with mid-major offers already) for the score.
The Gauchos, who missed the PAT after their first touchdown, didn’t get the lead until 4:47 was left before halftime. That came on what had to be the play of the game. From the Bears’ 27, Garcia should have been sacked by Milton (who was in the game playing defense in some situations) coming up the middle on a blitz, but got away from him and then spotted a wide open Queen standing in the end zone. Queen made the catch to give Narbonne a 12-7 lead (the PAT was missed again).
Buchanan had two other promising first-half drives that ended in missed 42-yard field goals by Brady Specht. On the first one, the Bears reached the Narbonne 9-yard line. They were at the 19 with just seconds before the end of the first half.
In the second half, senior safety C.J. Jones gave the Bears an early lift with a diving interception, but their offense was stopped on a fourth down play on the Narbonne 31. The Gauchos then drove for their third score, which came on a fourth down play from the 5-yard line. Garcia again did a good job avoiding pressure and delivered a strike to Eren East.
If those two fourth down plays had been different (Buchanan converting and Narbonne getting stopped), the game could have gone in a different direction. Instead the Gaucho defense forced another punt, then the offense drove 68 yards for a 1-yard TD run by sophomore Tomarion Harden, a 6-foot, 205-pounder who ran with a lot of power in his first varsity game. Narbonne’s final score came on a 6-yard scramble by back-up quarterback Ashley Tucker Jr., a sophomore.
“This feels great because we’ve spent all our summer grinding to get back out there,” said Narbonne assistant coach Joe Aguirre, who is the one speaking for the coaches while head coach Manuel Douglas is away from the team because of that LAUSD investigation (which may not be resolved very soon). “Playing on national TV was exciting and what a stadium this is, but the boys came out and played great.”
Aguirre said it may have helped the team that it played a scrimmage the previous week at Chaminade in the San Fernando Valley.
“It was way hotter there because they have that field turf that radiates the heat,” Aguirre said. “We just focused on football tonight.”
Blessed with that defense, Narbonne has been tabbed as a preseason favorite to win the CIF Division 1-AA state title with virtually no chance to get the CIF Open Division slot from Southern California due to the dominance of state No. 1 Mater Dei (Santa Ana) and state No. 2 St. John Bosco, which are already looking like the obvious top two for that berth.
Garcia said the players know that too and know that a rematch with Cathedral Catholic (starting No. 1 in San Diego) also would be possible and would be preferred.
“We’d love it, but we are going to take it one game at a time and one practice at a time,” he said. “We definitely didn’t play our best in the first half, but we’ve just been handling all the adversity. We wish Coach Douglas was here. This one was for him.”
Milton enjoyed the television experience and said to all the Georgia Bulldog fans who probably were checking out the game that “I’ll be ready to make big plays right away.”
Milton also said: “We got up early on them, but then just missed a few assignments. Everybody fought to the final whistle and did all they could against a very good team. We’ll now be looking to have an impact next week against Bullard (Fresno).”
Narbonne’s next opponent will be against Lone Peak of Utah next Saturday afternoon at Moorpark College in Ventura County as part of the Brother in Arms Classic.