Santa Barbara City College outlasted a stubborn Moorpark team for a 28-18 win at La Playa Stadium on Saturday — and clinched at least a share of the American Pacific League title for the first time since 1991.
The Vaqueros won their eighth straight, a school record for consecutive victories, and are now 4-0 in the APL with a game to go at Santa Monica next Saturday. They are 8-1 overall.
Moorpark’s first league loss puts them at 3-1.
The Vaqueros never trailed in this one, but the Raiders managed to stay close.
Moorpark got to within 21-18 with a score with 7:45 to play, and SBCC quarterback Alex Johnson responded by leading a nine-play, 72-yard drive capped by his own 18-yard run for the final score.
On 3rd-and-4, Johnson appeared to be looking for the first down to keep the clock-eating drive alive, when he saw an open path to the end zone. Marko Jovisic nailed his fourth extra point, and the Vaqueros led 28-18 with 1:22 left.
“I’m really pleased with how we endured,” SBCC coach Craig Moropoulos said. “They came back, and we bounced back, and they came back, and we bounced back.
“That touchdown at the end, I was so happy for Alex because he just wanted it more than they did.”
Moorpark comebacks, at times aided by SBCC miscues, were stymied at key moments by a number of timely big plays on offense, defense and special teams.
In a rarity this season, the normally quick-strike Vaqueros didn’t score in the first period, which ended at 0-0.
But late in the quarter, SBCC freshman defensive lineman Caleb McNeill-Tyler forced a fumble by Moorpark running back Gabe Landless, which was recovered by Aneterea Lealao on the Moorpark 17 yard line.
Five plays later, Johnson connected with sophomore wide receiver Chase Wells for a six-yard score with 14:30 left in the second quarter.
The ensuing Moorpark drive went 55 yards before the Raiders settled for a 37-yard field goal attempt — which was blocked by Vaquero 6-foot-4 defensive lineman sophomore Koby Sarna, who leaped up to swat the ball away.
With the ball again, Johnson found Elian Sundquist for a 21-yard gain, and Johnson rushed for another 21, and finally Mekhi Norfleet rushed for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Vaqueros led 14-0 at the half and it seemed they were in control.
But Moorpark responded with two scores in the third quarter, first on a 30-yard halfback pass to receiver River Stout and later on a 20-yard rush by Landless with 17 seconds left in the quarter.
The Raiders couldn’t convert on extra-points all afternoon, but they were within 14-12 heading into the fourth quarter.
On the Raiders’ kickoff after the score, SBCC receiver BJ Phillips returned the ball 40 yards to the Santa Barbara 46. After a sack of Johnson early in the fourth, the quarterback found Phillips for a 22 yard gain and then found Sundquist for a 12 yard score.
The Vaqueros again had a two-score advantage at 21-12 with 12:59 to go in the game.
After a 3-and-out by Moorpark, the Vaqueros started from their own 33 and didn’t get far before Johnson was sacked and fumbled the ball, recovered by Moorpark’s Arnulfo Morales at the SB 38.
Raider QB Macloud Crowton promptly found Stout for a 37 yard gain to the Vaquero 1-yard line, stopped short of the end zone by Jakobie Seabour.
Cameron Davis made up that yard with a score with 7:45 left to pull the Raiders to within 21-18.
That’s when Johnson recovered his own momentum with the 72-yard drive, featuring passes to Wells for 14 and 6 yards before punching it in from 18 on a keeper.
“You know, the fumble (Johnson) had, he was trying to make a play, and he’s got to do a better job of taking care of the ball,” Moropoulos said. “But I was really happy to see him — because he’s worked so hard — come back and get that clinching touchdown. That was really good.”
And there were plaudits to share around for the gritty win.
“That’s the most rewarding thing for me,” Moropoulos said. “There’s just a lot of different guys. Good teams don’t rely on one person. Good teams utilize everybody. That’s what we’re doing. And that’s what makes me really proud as a coach.”
That includes Lealao, a freshman linebacker from Milpitas nicknamed “Monster,” for some key tackles and a deflected pass, Kayden Chan for strong returns, and receivers Wells, Sundquist and Phillips, among others.
With Jovisic, subbing for the injured Joe Bowman, the Vaqueros have another kicker who keeps them perfect on extra points for the high-scoring season. The importance of that is illustrated in the fact that extra points could have determined the outcome against Moorpark if SBCC didn’t get that last TD.
Johnson finished with 12 of 17 pass completions for 115 yards, no interceptions and two TDs.
Running back Brandon Smith, hampered by a “bad shoulder,” managed just 22 yards on nine carries, “but he sucked it up and played today,” Moropoulos said. “He adds a very physical presence to our offense that we really need.”
The same with Norfleet, who gutted out 50 yards and a touchdown.
Next week, at Santa Monica — 1-3 in conference play — the Vaqueros can wrap up an outright APL title.
“And we got to get that done,” Moropoulos said. “We’re not done yet, we got one more to go. And then see what happens after that.”