Laguna Hills football (13-1) inched past Golden Valley (9-5) to win the CIF Division 7 championship game 28-27 on Saturday night at Canyon.
The Hawks were led by star running back Troy Leigber, who pounded the Grizzlies with 206 yards on the ground along with two touchdowns.
Golden Valley did a solid job slowing down Leigber throughout the game but the Hawk running back was constantly able to break off for big runs and register his 11th game over 100 yards rushing this season.
“What else can you say? They battled,” said Grizzlies head coach Dan Kelley on what he told his players after the game. “We came up one point short and we had a heck of a time stopping their running game. Number six is a special running back. But our kids fought till the end. I’m hurting for them. I’m hurting for all our kids.”
The Grizzly offense was as balanced as ever. Solid runs from Isaiah Orozco and Julian Rios was able to move the chains and run some clock.
The passing attack shined and it showed early in the game.
Wide receiver Ajani Smith would score the Grizzlies’ first two touchdowns with big receptions from quarterback Chris Melkonian.
The two connected for a 43-yard pass before Smith broke free for a nine-yard score on the third play of the game. On their next possession, Melkonian hit Smith again for another big game with a 33-yard touchdown pass.
Melkonian suffered a right ankle injury in the team’s win over Mayfair last week and practiced only one day before the big game. His mobility wasn’t as strong as normal but Melkonian played a great game throwing for 214 yards and two touchdowns.
“I was in a walking boot all week,” said Melkonian. “I Didn’t even get an MRI after to see what’s wrong. It was really like a helpless feeling back there. You know my thing I like to go run around, making plays but not being able to do that when plays break down, I felt helpless back there. Like I didn’t know what to do and I feel like I cost us the game like that.”
Smith would finish with eight receptions for 166 yards. The star receiver didn’t know if his quarterback would play but was ecstatic Melkonian was able to suit up for the CIF title.
“It was great knowing that [Melkonian] wants to fight for us and want to be there to help us get the W,” said Smith.
The teams exchanged score after score as neither team would punt until the sixth possession of the game.
Laguna quarterback Kaden Austin also led his team down the field for scores on their first two drives. Austin hit junior Ray Perez for a 33-yard strike to tie the game at 7-7.
The Hawk quarterback found the end zone by himself with a one-yard rushing score on the team’s next drive.
Golden Valley would take the lead right back thanks to a huge 52-yard rushing TD from Orozco. The running back hit two big stiff arms to clear up enough space to break free for the score.
“It was a great game,” said Orozco. “We were neck and neck the whole game. They came out, they played strong, they play ball. We came out, we played strong and played ball. The odds weren’t in our favor. we executed we did our job, but it just didn’t go our way.”
Both defenses started making plays after the onslaught of scoring in the first 17 minutes.
The Grizzlies forced a quick three and out only to have the offense fire off a quick punt after a big Ryder Simmons sack of Melkonian. The Grizzlies then forced Leigber to fumble but another big sack kept Golden Valley from scoring before the halftime break.
Leigber took his first score in on the Hawk’s second half opening drive. The senior back kept hammering the ball up the field and took one into the end zone on his sixth carry of the drive.
Golden Valley was poised to answer and keep the scoring going but Laguna linebacker Ryan Garcia picked off Melkonian on the Grizzlies’ opening possession.
The team wasn’t phased and surrendered no momentum to the Hawks as the Grizzlies forced yet another three and out.
However, on Laguna’s next drive, Leigber would finally break off a big play. The back broke outside of the line and took an 84-yard score to the house to take a 28-21 lead.
The Grizzlies would again surrender no momentum and battled right back. Golden Valley fought its way down the field and capped off its final scoring drive with a two-yard rushing TD from senior Malachi Beacham.
The game was about to be tied for the fourth time but the Hawks managed to block the Golden Valley PAT from kicker Kevin Cabrera.
The Grizzlies would get another chance after their defense forced a punt but a strip sack of Melkonian recovered by linebacker Tyler Guzman nearly sealed the game.
Golden Valley would have to burn timeouts but just couldn’t stop Leigber when it needed to most. The Hawk running back picked up multiple first downs on the way to victory formation as a few Austin kneels ended the game.
The Grizzlies were crushed but still remain proud of the best season in school history. The team reached nine wins and had a deep playoff push in which they were turned away by just one point.
The seniors who have dealt with COVID-19 throughout their high school careers again didn’t get the result they wanted but Kelley is proud of his group being the last team standing in a highly competitive Foothill League.
“I take a lot of pride of what we’ve done in the last nine years,” said Kelley. “When I first got here, Golden Valley couldn’t win a Foothill League league game and now here we are in the CIF title not just once but twice. So it’s a credit to the coaches. It’s a credit to the kids buying into what we’re teaching them. I’m happy we’re at Golden Valley football.”
Laguna Hills will move on to the state tournament while the Grizzlies season was cut short. However, the team remains proud of being part of a monumental nine-win season for Golden Valley. The seniors have helped raise the bar for what the program is and what it will become under Kelley.