The Jackrabbits are back.
A dedicated group of players and coaches at Long Beach Poly have been steadily making progress in returning the program to the California football conversation, and on Friday night at Mission Viejo they made a loud statement with a thrilling 35-30 victory over the Diablos.
The win over No. 4 state-ranked Mission Viejo on the road was the biggest regular season win for the Jackrabbits in a decade, as Poly improves to 3-0 on the year.
“It was a great team win, a great program win,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “We’ve been working and wanting to compete against some of the best teams in California. This was us playing to the standard of Long Beach Poly football.”
With his team celebrating on the field it would have been easy for Barbee to thump his chest a little about those who’ve written Poly off, but he didn’t, nor did he take any credit for the progress the Jackrabbits have made in his tenure.
“First and foremost it’s the kids,” he said. “They’ve bought into what we’re doing and I’m blessed to be able to coach them and blessed to have incredible administrators that are very supportive of the football program and of developing the whole student athlete.”
The game was a thriller from start to finish as it pitted two incredibly evenly-matched public school powerhouses against each other. In the final tally, Poly outgained Mission Viejo 397 to 383 yards as the two teams had three lead changes in the fourth quarter, with the Jackrabbits taking the lead for the final time with less than 30 seconds left on a Devin Samples touchdown run.
Poly quarterback Darius Curry went 27/40 289 yards and two touchdowns, and was 5/6 on third and fourth down in the game’s final quarter.
“I’m just feeling joy because in the history of the rivalry between Poly and Mission we were 1-6,” said Curry. “We just wanted to come out and make history and get Poly back up on a pedestal. We’re Poly, the legacy here means a lot to Long Beach. We all have a chip on our shoulder because people have been looking down on us, we just all wanted to come out here and win.”
The two teams were too evenly matched for any one unit to dominate, but Poly’s offense, defense, and special teams all stepped up and made big plays when they needed to.
In the first half, the offense responded quickly when Mission Viejo went up 7-0, on a one-yard touchdown plunge by Joseph Mendez. Poly responded with a touchdown on their next drive, as Curry completed passes to Raiden Brown and Jason Robinson, and Samples helped push Poly into the red zone, where Curry scored it himself on a 12-yard run.
The Jackrabbits defense gave them a 14-7 lead 30 seconds later as Mission attempted to answer Poly’s score. Arizona commit defensive end Dominic Lolesio tipped a pass at the line, and it fell into the hands of Phoenix Tusa, Poly’s defensive tackle; Tusa sprinted into the end zone to give Poly the 14-7 lead.
“We came out here to win, I’m a senior this year and me and my brothers had a meeting about what an important milestone that would be,” said Tusa, who also had three sacks in the game.
Things looked grim for the Jackrabbits going into halftime, though, as the Diablos would score 10 unanswered points to close out the half, with Poly’s two successive offensive drives ending with a three-and-out and an interception. Mission took a 24-14 lead into the locker room with the knowledge that they’d be receiving to start the second half.
A sack by Tusa helped keep the Diablos from scoring on their opening drive of the second half, which ended on a turnover on downs on a pass breakup in the end zone by Poly defensive back Chase Stewart, who was tested frequently but who battled admirably and won more often than not with his assignment of covering college-bound passcatchers.
The Jackrabbits finally got some traction after holding the Diablos to a punt from their own five yard line, which set Poly up on the Mission 40. Samples pounded the ball and Curry hit Brown for 24 yards on third and five to set up a Curry to Jason Robinson touchdown that made it 24-21 Mission.
The Diablos responded with a punishing drive filled with power runs, but Poly’s defense held them to a field goal that made it 27-21 Mission, a score that stood up into the fourth quarter. Poly’s go-ahead drive was a four-minute, 72-yard touchdown drive that saw Curry hit Jadyn Robinson to convert one fourth down, and Brown to convert another. Finally Curry found the younger Robinson brother in the end zone to take the lead, 28-27.
Mission answered with a field goal on the ensuing drive, taking the lead back at 30-28. With Poly going three-and-out after that, things looked grim once again for the Jackrabbits. They turned downright disastrous when their punt from their own 29 yard line was blocked and recovered by the Diablos. But with a huge sack from Lolesio, Mission was held to a 35 yard field goal attempt, which they missed, giving Poly the ball back on their own 20 with 3:07 left in the game, down by two points.
The ensuing drive was the cherry on top of a beautifully-called game by Poly offensive coordinator Rene Medina, and a testament to the diversity of Poly’s offense. Curry hit Robinson and Brown to move the ball across midfield, then took a sack. A dump to Samples made it 3rd and 9. Casually, Curry ran it to cut the distance to 4th and 2, and then on 4th and 2 hit Robinson for seven yards. A roughing the passer call on Mission put Poly into the red zone, where they handed it to Samples for a five yard gain, a four yard gain, a one yard gain, and then (after a false start) a nine-yard touchdown to take the lead with 20 seconds left.
After that the Poly defense was able to finish the game off, with Troy Tamasoa knocking the ball out of Mission Viejo QB Kadin Semonza’s hands as time expired.
“This means a lot to our program,” said Poly linebacker Dylan Williams, a USC commit. “It’s a big statement. We’re not playing, Poly’s back.”
Barbee proudly pointed out that a ton of players made huge plays on his team, making it difficult to even highlight three or four.
“Everybody’s going to eat, everybody’s going to make plays,” he said. “It’s a matter of them just doing their job–when it’s their number they’re going to be ready and they’re going to make a play.”
Curry gained over 300 yards of total offense with three TDs, and Samples had 23 carries for 86 yards of hard running and the game-winning touchdown. Jason Robinson had 10 catches for 123 yards and a score and Brown had nine for 101 yards.
“The main goal of all of us coming here was to bring the program back, to restore Poly,” said Robinson, a USC commit. “Me and my boys, Darius, DWill, we wanted to come in and put Poly back on top where it belongs.”
Defensively, Ike Mikaele had 10 tackles, Tusa had the three sack/TD performance, Lolesio had a sack and a pass breakup, and Williams had a sack.
The Jackrabbits (3-0) will travel to El Camino to face Leuzinger next week to close out their nonleague schedule.