BURTON HIGH SCHOOL — Without a word, Lowell lineman Michael Stamatopoulos went up to Cardinals running back Brendan Nguy and embraced him. Standing on the Burton High School track, the two wept.
Nguy tore his ACL last week, had to watch from the sidelines as Lowell beat the Pumas 22-20 on Friday. The Cardinals made sure he wasn’t left out of the celebration. “He’s not gone,” said running back Benji Ng, who ran 10 times for 38 yards. “He’s in my corner.”
The young team that suffered a raft of injuries en route to a 1-7 season a year ago, whose own administration forfeited a game they wanted to play, a team that had won just eight games over the last five years, is now headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Nguy wasn’t the only one in tears.
“It’s everything,” quarterback Reese Miller said through sobs. “To hear everything that people say to us at school because we’re Lowell football, right? Who are we? And we finally get this chance. This is my second year. Some of them have been taking it for four straight years. To do it for them, to do it for Brennan, who didn’t even get to play, it’s special.”
Stamatopoulos hugged Miller before he and the rest of the team embraced Nguy. A week ago, Miller threw for 287 yards in a 61-0 romp over Galileo, but played a smaller role in what was essentially a play-in game for the Academic Athletic Association semifinal.
Ronald Pollick, author of all three Lowell touchdowns, intercepted a tipped pass in the end zone with 20 seconds left to preserve the win.
“Seeing the ball tipped up, I was just so happy,” Pollick said.
It was the second time ballhawk Jeremiah Hizon had tipped a pass on the drive, making a valiant effort on the first as he dove for an underthrown ball and nearly kicked it to himself before it ultimately fell to the ground.
Before that, Lowell (5-4-1, 3-3 AAA) had fallen into a 20-8 hole after Pumas quarterback Alfonzo Smith’s second rushing touchdown of the day, opening up a two-score margin with 5:12 left in the third quarter. Smith ran 12 times for 127 yards and threw a four-yard touchdown to Jonah Mati.
It had taken a while for the Lowell offense to get rolling without Nguy, but Ng and Pollick, who had 107 yards on 15 carries, did the bulk of the work with Nguy on the sidelines. The Cardinals opened things up with a 19-yard run from Adrian Navarro, then cut the lead to five with a 30-yard Pollick touchdown run to the pylon on the right side and Nikolai Hungate extra point.
Getting the ball back after back-to-back incompletions and a short punt with 31 seconds left in the third, Lowell ripped off a nine-play scoring drive — including a 23-yard run by Pollick — to take the lead back, with their senior leader punching it in up the middle from two yards out.
Burton (4-5, 2-4) still had 7:40 to work with, and the combination of Smith and running back Samson “Pooka” Olomua. Olomua, who ran 27 times for 150 yards, started the drive with a gain of 11, and a 32-yard gain from Smith got the hosts across midfield with a raucous homecoming crowd at their backs. Smith initially appeared to have gotten all the way down to the five-yard line, but was ruled to have stepped out at the 20 and was flagged for arguing that a horse-collar tackle should have been called on the Cardinals.
On the very next play, Smith was hit hard at the line as he threw a pass that Hizon nearly picked, sending him to the trainers and forcing Mati in at quarterback. Still, the Pumas got the 10 yards they needed over the next three plays with two runs by Olomua and a Mati dive over the middle on fourth-and-inches.
Olomua converted a third-and-1 at the 16 with 3:14 left, and Smith, back in the game and lined up at receiver to take advantage of his 6-foot-1 frame, drew a pass interference flag to put Burton at the 10 with 1:09 to go. Needing four yards for a first down, Olomua gained six before finally getting stopped in the backfield by Lawrence Jiang for a loss of nine. That forced Burton to finally go to the air with Mati, and his pass for Smith was tipped by Hizon to an eagerly awaiting Pollick. All Miller had to do was avoid kneeling in his own end zone.
Since their last playoff berth in 2013, Lowell has had to deal with lack of support from their own student body and even had an administration that didn’t believe in them.
“Last year, we had our last game against Lincoln taken away from us because they didn’t think we could hack ‘em, I guess,” head coach Danny Chan said. “Our administration said, ‘Oh, they’re too tough for you.’ I had to have the principal come down to the field and talk to them because I couldn’t even explain it. The kids were mad, and they couldn’t even do anything about it. This (rematch) will be a nice makeup game.”
Lowell will travel to Lincoln next Thursday for one of the the AAA semifinals, and while the Cardinals will be heavy underdogs, they didn’t care after taking down the Pumas. They’ve gone 8-37 over the last five years, and gotten nowhere near the postseason.
“We work so hard and no one sees it,” Miller said. “We had maybe one game where we felt like we had even a substantial crowd, and we get talked about because of our record.”
While the Cardinals snapped a five-year postseason drought, it marked a fourth straight season for the Pumas where they’ll be watching the playoffs.
“We tried our best the whole season. Some scores that shouldn’t have been they way they were, but this team, they were great,” Smith said.
For head coach Duane Breaux, who’s essentially been the patriarch of the Burton athletic department for decades, missing the playoffs was a disappointment, especially considering the talent he had on this year’s squad.
“I haven’t had athleticism like this in eight, nine years,” said Breaux, who also serves as the school’s basketball coach. “Some of them have a chance to be D-I players if grades work out.”
Smith ran for a seven-yard touchdown run in the second and threw to Mati for a two-point conversion to tie the game at 8 after the Cardinals had scored on their opening drive.
Zonglin Li picked Smith off on the third play from scrimmage after Smith’s long return on the opening kickoff, and a 19-yard run by Pollick and back-to-back completions from Miller to Jairo Archila and Jiang set up Pollick’s three-yard run for the opening score. He also took in the ensuing conversion.
Lowell had a chance to go go up 14-0 after a botched punt by the Pumas set them up at the 25, but a Pollick pass for Hizon was overthrown on the penultimate play of the first quarter, setting up a 16-play Burton drive.
The Pumas scored again before halftime after a 51-yard Olomua run set up Smith’s four-yard pass to Mati, and after stopping Lowell on downs to start the third, they went up by two scores on a drive where Smith did a little bit of everything. He gained 17 to get his team across midfield, avoided a sack to complete an 18-yard pass to Jamison Smallwood and scored from three yards out, but the dropped two-point conversion and blocked extra point before halftime loomed large as the Cardinals came back to prolong their season.