The Hart Indians (4-7) mounted a late comeback attempt, but it fell short as the Claremont Wolfpack (8-2) won in Saturday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 7 first-round matchup, 29-26, at Valencia High School.
Trailing 29-20 with just under three minutes to play in regulation, Hart junior quarterback Timmy Larkins led his team 76 yards down the field, finishing the drive with a 20-yard dime to junior Shawn Irwin. The PAT attempt was tipped and hit the bar, though, and Claremont recovered the ensuing onside kick to ice the game.
“Very frustrating,” Hart head coach Rick Herrington said. “I thought it was a team we had a chance to beat. Our offense looked great at the start of the game and then they went downhill for the rest of the half. And then they came back and did a good job in the second half.”
The Indians started the game as well as they could have hoped. They began with first downs on three of their first four plays before capping off a 70-yard drive with a 1-yard run by senior Donovan Dunn to go ahead, 7-0.
The offense fell apart after that, though, and Claremont quarterback Nathan Giles was able to use his speed to terrorize the Hart defense. He rushed for 117 yards in the first half, scoring twice. One of those touchdowns was a 62-yard run to give the Wolfpack the lead late in the second quarter, with the other a 29-yard run midway through the second.
“We talked all week long that we can’t let the quarterback beat us, and he scored three touchdowns on us,” Herrington said. “He got outside of us two or three times. We worked so hard on that this week, and they get in the game, they don’t do it.”
Larkins threw two interceptions in the first half, the second turning into a touchdown by Claremont senior Zack Lepper. Giles, also the Wolfpack’s kicker, was injured on the PAT, which hindered his ability to run in the second half. He was able to manage the offense, though, and scored a crucial 35-yard run with 2:58 left in the fourth quarter to put his team up by two possessions.
Larkins had been nearly perfect before those two interceptions, and there was a clear distinction between his play before the first one and what he did after. He finished with 150 passing yards and two touchdowns, both to Irwin, who had seven catches for 83 yards.
“Offensively, I’m not sure,” Herrington said of his team’s struggles in the first half. “Then we throw the pick, which should never, ever have been thrown. And he throws it up for grabs for some reason. We’re trying to figure it out, and we still don’t know. [Larkins] doesn’t know. But those things happen. It’s frustrating because I thought we had a real good chance in this division to do something, and we don’t do it.”
Dunn finished with 121 yards on 21 carries, scoring another 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 22-20. He also caught six passes for 27 yards, often being Larkins’ safety net with some short-distance plays. Larkins added 79 yards on the ground on 13 carries.
Claremont senior Caden Campuzano paced the Wolfpack offense. While not as flashy as Giles, who ended up with 177 yards on just nine carries, he was hugely helpful in killing the clock in the second half. He finished with 109 yards on 21 carries, even filling in as a wildcat quarterback when Giles was out for a short period. Giles attempted just three passes, completing one for four yards.
Larkins picked up 94 of his passing yards in the second half, Dunn had 74 yards rushing and Irwin had 57 receiving yards. The Hart defense held Claremont to just 130 yards of offense in the second half. Hart senior Alberto Favela recovered a fumble in the third quarter to set up Irwin’s first receiving touchdown.
“We played great in the second half,” Herrington said. “We looked great, just gave them too many big plays.”
While Hart’s season may be over, just getting into the playoffs was an immense achievement for the Indians. They needed to win their final three games to finish tied for third in the Foothill League to even have an outside shot, which they did, and then the luck of a coin flip gave them the final automatic berth out of the league.
“The way the season started, it didn’t look very good,” Herrington said. “And then we knew what we had to do and our kids did it, which shows a lot of heart that they came through and did that for us.”
The Indians can look forward to next season, though, with Larkins and Irwin both coming back for their senior campaigns. They’ll be joined by other junior standouts in receiver Ryan De La Maza, receiver Adam Geukens, linebacker Chris Clauss and tackle Vince Tiscareno. And that’s just a few of the guys Herrington can expect to come back with even more experience.
“We do have a lot of guys coming back,” Herrington said. “We’re missing a few seniors that will hurt missing, but other than that, we do have a lot of guys coming back. We’ve got to work to find some linemen, which happens every year, and we’ll see what happens.”