PLACENTIA – Valencia knows how to win once the calendar turns to league games. Nathan Sandoval and Eli Oropeza combined to rush for 237 yards to help the host Tigers ditch their slow start to the season and open defense of their Empire League title with a 28-20 victory against No. 22 Cypress on Thursday. The Tigers (3-3, 1-0) shared the league title last season with Tustin after an 0-5 start. But the Tigers feature a twist this fall with the return of longtime coach Mike Marrujo as an assistant or as an “advisor” as he referred to himself before the game.
Valencia claimed the victory after a third-down pass by Cypress quarterback Alex Ashcraft from the Tigers 26 to Dominique Thompson was ruled incomplete with 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Thompson, a receiver who made two spectacular leaping catches earlier, and defender Michael Garcia, who also played a strong game for Valencia, appeared to wrestle for the ball in the back corner of the end zone before the ruling. The Centurions’ fourth-down pass fell incomplete with six seconds left, sealing Valencia’s biggest victory of the season by far.
“This is a real nice win for us. They have a lot of very skilled players,” Valencia coach Jason Gray said. “It took everything for us to win that game. I’m real proud of the kids.” The officials didn’t signal touchdown or incomplete pass immediately after Thompson’s near-touchdown reception on third down, which could have moved the Centurions (4-2, 0-1) within a 2-point conversion of potentially forcing overtime.
Thompson emerged from the tussle with the ball. “I thought we intercepted the ball, honestly,” Gray said. “I couldn’t see very well because I’m on the sideline. My guys upstairs were saying it was an interception.” Cypress coach Rick Feldman was on the sideline closer to the play and thought Thompson caught a touchdown. Feldman was calm in talking to the referee after the play. The referee talked to both coaches before the fourth down play and minor clock adjustment.
“I thought it was a catch and a touchdown,” Feldman said in a text message. “After they (the officials) huddled, he (the referee) said they blew it (the play) dead before Dom had it.” But Feldman didn’t focus on the debated play. “We made too many mistakes against a good team,” he said. Valencia opened a 21-6 lead on the second play of the fourth quarter after a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Zachary Charles. The sneak capped an 82-yard drive after an interception Marvin Burgos of Valencia just in front of his goal line on a fourth-down play.
But on the ensuing possession, Thompson caught a 49-yard TD reception on fourth down. But Cypress defense forced another turnover and capitalized. Charles turned a fumble recovery by Garcia at the Cypress 28 into another 1-yard TD run and Valencia took a 28-13 lead with 1:30 left in the fourth. Cypress didn’t go away as Ashcraft answered by tossing a 1-yard TD pass to Elias Rios with 49 seconds left to trim the Tigers lead to 28-20. The Centurions also recovered the onside kick after the score. Sandoval rushed for 161 yards on 30 carries while Oropeza added 76 yards. Ashcraft passed for 332 yards. Thompson made eight catches for 167 yards. Western transfer wide out Aaron Bojorquez also played well for Cypress with seven catches for 79 yards.
Valencia led,14-6, at halftime on a pair of touchdown runs by Oropeza. The sophomore capped a 41-yard drive with a 6-yard TD run on third-and-2 as the Tigers opened a 7-0 lead with 1:01 left in the first quarter. A 21-yard punt return by Garcia positioned Valencia for the short, scoring march, which featured four runs by Oropeza. Late in the first half, the Tigers drove 70 for Oropeza’s second TD run, a 5-yard rumble, that helped open a 14-3 lead. Marrujo inserted the 6-foot, 180-pound Oropeza back into the game on the previous play and the running back broke a 20-yard run to the 5.
Valencia sparked the drive with some flair typical of Marrujo’s teams in the past. Charles rolled right and threw left to tight end Garrett Paine for 32-yard gain to the Cypress 40. Sandoval rushed for 84 yards on 15 carries in the first half. Cypress’ Ean Dettmer kicked a 29-yard field goal, his second of the first half, on the final play of the second quarter to cut Valencia’s lead to 14-6. Cypress reached the red zone twice in the first half but the Tigers forced field goals each time, sequences that loomed significant in the second half.
Valencia 28, Cypress 20