Column: Gardena Serra advances to Division 2 semifinal after turning back Los Alamitos rally

Cincere Rhaney is no ordinary high school football player. He’s a true warrior. The proof could be seen late Friday night at Gardena Serra as he limped around the field accepting congratulations after grinding out 203 yards rushing in 26 carries to help send the Cavaliers into the Southern Section Division 2 semifinals with a 38-28 win over Los Alamitos.

His last 40-yard carry saw him get twisted to the ground awkwardly, leaving his left knee in pain.

“I can walk,” he said when asked how he was doing.

It was win-or-go-home time for both teams, and the Cavaliers (9-3) have one of those Scott Altenberg-coached teams that isn’t accepting anything but a championship.

“They popped us in the mouth to start the second half,” Rhaney said. “We weren’t going to let up. Our offense and defense is built on adversity.”

Serra held a 24-14 halftime lead that quickly disappeared after two third-quarter touchdowns by the Griffins (9-3). Quarterback Alonzo Esparza completed his first five passes of the half and started moving the ball with a quick-tempo attack. He scored on runs of four and 20 yards for a 28-24 lead.

Then Serra turned to its athletes to fight back. CJ McBean caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Butler to help the Cavaliers regain the lead. Then Camron Harris-Willot scored on a one-yard run following a spectacular 36-yard catch by freshman Duvay Williams.

Los Alamitos self-destructed in the fourth quarter with penalties on a key drive. The Griffins had a first down at the Serra 28, but facemask and intentional grounding penalties wiped out the drive. Both teams had more than 100 yards in penalties.

In the end, it was Serra just finding athlete after athlete to make contributions. Butler passed for 204 yards. Zacharyus Williams caught five passes for 70 yards. Sophomore defensive lineman Khary Wilder, who had sacks in every Mission League game, recorded one against Esparza.

“Serra is made of athletes,” Rhaney said. “We breed athletes.”

The school of Robert Woods, Adoree’ Jackson and Rodrick Pleasant keeps finding replacements at a co-ed school with 385 students.

“We don’t have a lot of them, but we have a lot of grit,” Altenberg said.

The first quarter saw Serra score on its opening possession with the help of a penalty for roughing the punter. Joshua Baldwin caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Bulter. Los Alamitos tied the score on its second play, a 58-yard touchdown pass from Esparza to Hayden Eligon.

Then it was Rhaney and Williams taking over for the Cavaliers. Rhaney broke off an 80-yard touchdown run on a draw play. McBean contributed a 43-yard field goal for a 17-7 lead. Los Alamitos got a touchdown on a one-yard run from Anthony League. Williams caught passes of 37 and seven yards to set up a four-yard touchdown run by Rhaney for a 24-14 halftime lead.

Next up for Serra is a semifinal game against Servite, a 27-20 winner over Long Beach Poly. As long as Rhaney can walk, there’s hope of a quick recovery.

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