BALBOA HIGH SCHOOL — Balboa quarterback Raiden Thien-Jones raised his arms upwards as he was engulfed by his teammates.
Having sprinted 18 yards for a touchdown, extending his left arm over the goal line with under four minutes left against Mission, Thien-Jones — a wide receiver last season — made up for three early interceptions with the game’s decisive touchdown.
In a preview of next week’s Academic Athletic Association semifinal — on the Buccaneers’ Senior Day — it was a quintet of seniors — Thien-Jones, Emiliano Dimas, Roman Banks and the Haro brothers, Sefania and Sekaria — who powered a 14-7 win to secure a second-place finish.
“These guys came a long way,” said Balboa head coach Fred Velasquez. “Raiden had never played quarterback before, stepped in this year to play quarterback, I had a couple transfers step in and they had to sit out extra games, so it’s sweet for them to have a big input on the final outcome.”
In a game where neither team showed much trickery ahead of their rematch next week, Balboa’s speed on defense proved to be the difference. Dimas racked up six tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a pick on the day to help lead a Bucaneers defense that made 10 tackles for loss, including seven sacks.
Despite out-gaining the Bears 124 yards to 98 in the first half — including 94 to 3 in the first quarter — Balboa was down 7-0 at the break thanks to a raft of penalties and three interceptions thrown by Thien-Jones. The first interception was a bad third-and-27 decision that turned into a 75-yard sideline-skimming pick six by Julian Milton with 9:59 to go in the first quarter.
“He threw it up for grabs, hoping that our receiver could out-jump their DB,” Velasquez said. “It was just a bad pass. No excused on that one.”
The Bucaneers drove from their own 25 to the Mission 36 on their next drive, but Thien-Jones’ second-and-11 pass to Orlindale Scott Carraway Jr. bounced off Scott Carraway Jr.’s hands and into Milton’s. Balboa’s defense, though, held strong pressuring the Bears’ Jamariea Burroughs off the edge, with a sack and forced fumble by Dimas and a hurry by Sakaria Haro, who finished with 2.5 sacks and four pressures, to go along with five tackles.
The Bears threatened again midway through the second quarter, when Matt Cohn passed out of a fake punt for a 65-yard gain to Milton, but a sack by junior Nelson Ropati and Sakaria Haro, and another by senior Edward Colon, forced a turnover on downs. A holding call, a drop and a tackle for loss, though, quashed the Bucaneers’ next drive.
“We knew that was coming, but we blew it, because there was a miscommunication on defense,” Velasquez said of the fake punt. “They’re known for that, they’re known for their trickery. If you’re sleeping, they’ll catch you.”
While Balboa struggled to get out of its own way early, without Noah Lee — on the shelf with a broken hand — Mission had trouble on the ground, gaining just 91 yards on 19 carries, while Burroughs went just 3-for-10 and Cohn went 3-for-6 for 96 yards and an interception.
Out of the half, Mission went backwards thanks to three penalties and a sack, giving the Buccaneers the ball at their own 47. Faced with third-and-25, Banks tore off a 35-yard run with 6:08 to go in the third, part of a 17-carry, 128-yard game on the ground. Colon (23 yards on six carries) ripped off an eight-yard run, and Jaziah Amataga lowered the boom for a first down at the Mission nine. On first and goal, Amataga (26 yards, four carries, four tackles) vaulted over the line, rolled sideways in mid-air and came down in the end zone with 4:54 to go in the quarter.
“I knew what I was doing,” said Amataga, with a bloodied arm sleeve. “I knew what I was getting myself into.”
The Buccaneers called time out while setting up for a PAT, and pulled off the two-point conversion, with Anthony Artola tossing a pass to junior Ray Jones to give Balboa an 8-6 lead.
Mission nearly answered back, driving 62 yards to the Balboa three, before Amagata came up with a stop on the edge, halting Cohn for no gain. Sakaria Haro dropped Will Delaney for a loss, and on third-and-three, Dimas picked off a pass in the end zone with 10:22 to go in regulation.
“They were faster than us, but as soon as we figured out how to contain them, it was a wrap from there,” Amataga said.
The Buccaneers defense came up big again after a fumble by Banks, with a sack, a forced fumble and a pair of pressures, setting up Thien-Jones’ chance at redemption.
After throwing his third pick in the first half, Thien-Jones — whose intelligence (a 3.85 GPA) and arm earned him the quarterback job after last spring — gripped his facemask and grunted out of frustration, but faced with second-and-seven at the Mission 18, found space on the far side of the field, caught the edge and trotted in untouched for an 18-yard touchdown with 3:52 to go.
“All I was trying to do was bounce back,” Thien-Jones said. “First half, I was struggling. My mind wasn’t in the right place. I needed to fix my craft. My technique was off. It was looking bad. My coaches, my players, everybody supported me. They got my back. Got my head back on. It was definitely satisfying.”
Mission’s next drive went backwards, and after a pass breakup by Banks, Dimias blasted through the middle of the line to drop Burroughs for a loss of six with 1:20 to go, all but sealing the game, as cow bells and cheers swept through the stands.
“I saw the QB read me, he pulled out and tried to juke me, but I grabbed him,” Dimas said. “It felt good to close out the game the way we did … Got to ball out on senior day. It’s a good way to go out, but we ain’t done yet.”
The Buccaneers (4-5, 4-1 in AAA) have not won the league title since 1984, and should they win their rematch with Mission, they likely face a strong test in Lincoln (8-1, 6-0) in the Turkey Day game. The Mustangs face Lowell (5-4-1, 3-3) in the other semifinal.
Winning next week will be more difficult, as Lee — the Bears’ leading rusher — will return.
“That’s my guy,” Velasquez said. “I coached him up at Riordan, and he’s a real fast scat back. This team has a lot of speed. They’re three-deep with speed, so we prepare for it. We’ve just got to get off our blocks.”
Cohn had three tackles and one interception for Mission, who was led defensively by Michael Fields (10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 TFLs) and Igorfer Velasquez (four tackles. 1.5 sacks, 2.5 TFL).
The game saw 25 combined penalties for 229 yards. the bears totaled 235 yards of offense, while the Buccaneers totaled 180. Mission fumbled twice and recovered one, while Balboa’s only three turnovers came in the first half, all on Thien-Jones interceptions.