Senior Chris Melkonian comes back after injury to lead Grizzlies to Division 7 final
Golden Valley senior Ajani Smith taped a $2 bill to the back of his pads before last week’s quarterfinal victory over Paloma Valley.
“Good luck,” Smith said of the practice.
Well, after scoring three touchdowns against Paloma, Smith decided to keep it on, and the luck continued. The Grizzlies (9-4) won a thriller over Mayfair (8-5) in the CIF-Southern Section Division 7 semifinals, 33-28, on Friday at Ron Yary Stadium in Bellflower, with Smith scoring two late touchdowns in the fourth quarter to send the Grizzlies to the title game.
Smith had been held to just one catch through three quarters before snagging a dart from senior quarterback Chris Melkonian midway through the fourth quarter. After the catch, Smith ran another 25 yards, leaving the Monsoon defenders in the dirt on his way to a 35-yard score and a Golden Valley lead, 27-21
“I just had to put my all to it,” Smith said. “I know it’s a close game, and once the ball hits my hands, got to score, get in the end zone to get in a championship. I love my team. So I wanted to do it for my team.”
Smith iced the game late in the fourth quarter on a 3-yard jet sweep.
“It took us a while to find a way to get him the ball,” Golden Valley head coach Dan Kelley said. “We did and he scored, so we’ll keep doing that next week, because he’s too much of a weapon to just leave him standing out there.”
Mayfair would cut the lead to one possession after Smith’s second touchdown on a late touchdown pass by quarterback Evan Tomich to wide receiver Max Mitchell. Golden Valley was able to recover the ensuing onside kick to seal the victory.
“We made plays when we had to tonight, and that’s how you win football games,” said Kelley, who picked up his 50th win at the helm at Golden Valley with the victory.
It’s nearly a miracle that Melkonian was even in a position to throw the ball to Smith. He had gone down earlier in the third quarter with what appeared to be a lower leg injury, and spent the next drive getting worked on. But after senior Donteo James-Williams intercepted Tomich in the fourth quarter, Melkonian knew he had to come back in and finish the job.
“I heard a little crack, a little pop, something,” Melkonian said. “But I knew, ‘Just give me five minutes, something, let me get myself back.’ I knew I had to come back and finish the game. I knew I had to do it for my teammates. I wanted it so bad. So I knew there was no coming out. It was never over.”
The Grizzlies came out of the gates strong, with Melkonian scoring on two separate 1-yard runs, once in the first quarter and once in the second. Junior running back Julian Rios was at the heart of a lot of what was working for the Grizzlies in that first half, moving the sticks before letting Melkonian finish the job.
“We’ve been running the ball pretty well in the playoffs,” Kelley said. “Last week, we ran the ball pretty well but once we got the ground game going, we stuck with it.”
The Monsoons answered back with two late scores in the second quarter to tie things up at 14-14 going into the half. First it was a 66-yard bomb from Tomich to wide receiver Jaiden Tanner on the first play after Melkonian’s second touchdown, followed by a 10-yard strike from Tomich to wide receiver Jordan Faatolo.
The Monsoons struck first in the third quarter to take their first lead of the game, 21-14, on a 1-yard run by running back Ryan Heredia with just over four minutes left. The Grizzlies were held for much of the second half before senior William Hake, playing as the wildcat quarterback for the injured Melkonian, ran it in from 13 yards out on what should have been the tying touchdown. Kelley decided to go for two after a Mayfair penalty on the PAT, but it was not converted and the Monsoons maintained a 21-20 advantage.
“I kind of second-guessed going for two, but you know what, you gamble in playoff games and that was our call,” Kelley said. “That’s my decision, and we came out with the W, so, hey, we learned from those things.”
Tomich gave the Grizzlies fits all night, both running and throwing. Running backs Heredia and Medrick Burnett Jr. were also tough to stop, something Kelley knew was going to be an issue.
“That quarterback and that running game over there, that’s a hard thing to stop,” Kelley said. “There’s some big kids on that Mayfair team, and the running game was what they wanted to do. We were able to slow it down, and we knew their quarterback was an athlete and a great passer. We got after him when we could and, you know, it’s bend but don’t break, right?”
The Grizzlies will now get ready for a championship game, which they will get to host, according to Kelley.
“We earned it, definitely earned it,” Kelley said. “And these kids, I’ll tell you what, they came out in that second half, I challenged them in the locker room, and they came out and played their hearts out.”
The Grizzlies will face off against Laguna Hills, which topped Western in the other semifinal, 45-33. The game will likely be played either next Friday or Saturday.
“We’ve talked about it since January,” Smith said. “We’ve preached about it and preached about it. Now that it’s happening, it’s just unbelievable.”