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Champions find a way to win.  For the seventh straight year, the Oceanside Pirates will have a chance to become the champions of the CIF-San Diego Section Division II.

With a defensive effort for the ages, the 4th seeded Oceanside Pirates (9-3) performed their annual role as the foil for the Helix football program, ending the Highlanders’ season for the third straight season with a 24-17 victory at Jim Arnaiz Field on the Helix campus in La Mesa.

“That was a championship football game right there,” said Oceanside head coach John Carroll, who will seek his seventh consecutive Division II section championship on Monday night against Mission Hills, “Lesser young men would have found a way to fail.  These are warriors with the hearts of champions.”

T.J. Sunia (#43, pictured) returned a fourth quarter fumble 39 yards for the game-winning score, and Adam Francis had a first half 49 yard interception return for another touchdown.  The fourteen defensive points were decisive, but Oceanside’s defense didn’t stop there, making three red zone stops to turn back Helix (11-1), including a pair inside the Oceanside 15 in the final 4:22 of the fourth quarter.

Postgame video interviews: T.J. Sunia/head coach John Carroll

A matchup which annually decides the Division II champion turned to heartbreak for Helix once again.  This time, the Highlanders were favored to beat their nemeses from Oceanside, with the top seed in the bracket and home field advantage.  Instead, the Scotties saw their season end at the Pirates’ hands for the sixth time in seven playoff meetings and the third year in a row.

“We just wanted it more,” said senior safety Adam Francis.

Despite two first half interceptions and the crucial fourth quarter fumble, Helix still had a first-and-goal opportunity to tie the game with 1:10 to play in the game, as a pass interference penalty set up the Scotties at the five yard line.

On first and second down, Helix tailback Darien Hancock (34 carries, 142 yards, TD) tried the middle of the field and was stopped cold.  With time ticking down to twenty seconds and Helix out of timeouts, the Highlanders were forced to burn their third down play on a spike.  On fourth and goal from the five, Helix was called for delay of game.

Pushed back to the ten yard line, quarterback Brandon Lewis’ pass for Sam Meredith went over his hands and out of bounds, sending the Pirates back to the “Q”.

The defensive scramble was an appropriate end to a ragged game which saw both teams make big mistakes on offense.  First, Helix was turned back empty handed after taking their opening drive to the Oceanside three yard line.  Sophomore linebacker William Gulley sacked Lewis for a ten yard loss on third and goal, and Vann Sabin’s 29 yard field goal attempt missed wide right.

After both teams exchanged punts, Lewis took a first down snap from the Helix ten yard line and heaved a bomb downfield for wide receiver Cameron Lee.  With the ball well over his head, Lee gave up on the pass attempt, but Oceanside senior defensive back Matthew Rojas did not.  Running down the Lewis arc for an interception, Rojas returned the pass 45 yards to the Helix 20 yard line.

While Oceanside’s ensuing drive was stopped cold by the Helix defense, Jose Basurto booted a 36 yard field goal to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead at the :39 mark of the first quarter.

The Scotties were again generous hosts on their next possession, taking a false start penalty on third-and-15 from their own 26 yard line.  Instead of running a conservative draw play or underneath pass on third-and-20, Lewis went for the downs, and his deep pass intended for Austin Gonzalez was intercepted by senior safety Adam Francis.  Weaving his way back through the Helix offense, Francis returned the interception 49 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 Oceanside lead with 9:58 to play before halftime.

“It was the greatest feeling, I can’t believe it,” said Francis of his big play.

It took a defensive play to get Helix back into the football game.  Tofi Pao Pao (9-18, 100 yards, 2 INT) was picked off by junior linebacker K.C. Smith with 2:12 to play in the second quarter, setting up Lewis’ 35 yard touchdown target to Gonzalez.  Senior defensive back Kenny Keys also intercepted Pao Pao on the final play of the first half, but his interception return was stopped at the Oceanside 18 yard line as time expired.

Trailing 10-7 to start the third quarter, Helix took the second half kickoff and marched 80 yards on 11 plays, all handoffs to Darien Hancock.  Gaining 75 of the 80 yards on the drive (the other five came on an offsides penalty), Hancock plunged into the Oceanside end zone from a yard out to give the Highlanders their first (and only) lead of the game with 6:04 to go in the third quarter.

After going three-and-out on their next possession, the Pirates turned to what else but defense to regain control of the football game.  Oceanside forced a quick three-and-out from Helix, then took advantage of a shanked punt by Jake Reed to take over at the Helix 48 yard line.  Three plays later, senior tailback Noah Tarrant stepped out of a tackle and raced 39 yards up the middle of the field for a 17-14 Pirates’ lead.

While Hancock was a horse for Helix, he wore down late in the third quarter.  Darien’s sixteenth carry of the quarter was a five-yard loss, with Gulley stripping the football loose.  Sunia scooped up the loose ball and took it 29 yards for a touchdown and a 24-14 lead.

“I blitzed and just saw the football lying there,” said Sunia, “I was unsure at first but just scooped it up, and I think the quarterback was behind me.  My instincts said ‘take it’ so I just took it and…I was blessed today.”

Still, the undefeated Highlanders were not done.  Sabin’s 46 yard field goal with 5:50 remaining made it a 24-17 game.  When Tarrant fumbled on Oceanside’s next possession, Raymont Nailon recovered for the Highlanders deep in Oceanside territory at the 20 yard line.

After gaining five yards on their first two plays, Helix took to the air, with Lewis throwing incompletions on third and fourth down in the end zone.  The Pirates then had an opportunity to run out the clock but failed to do so, punting the ball back to Helix with 2:20 to play.

Postgame audio interview: Oceanside senior Anthony Mount

A pass to Gonzalez of 30 yards set up Helix at the Oceanside 22 yard line.  On second and 10 from the 11 yard line, Lewis’ pass to Sam Meredith drew pass interference from the side judge, giving Helix a first-and-goal at the five.  But two ill-advised runs forced a spike and then a delay of game penalty set up the final, fateful incompletion.

The Pirates will now face Mission Hills in the Division II finals on Monday, December 6th at 4:30pm.  It will be a rematch of Oceanside’s 48-28 win over the Grizzlies on October 8th.

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