LA VERNE — When the Highland football team needed big plays in the final two minutes on Friday night, both the offense and defense delivered.
The two big plays propelled Highland to a 42-27 victory over Bonita in a CIF-Southern Section Division 10 semifinal game at Damien High School.
The Bulldogs (13-0) advance to their first championship game in program history and will play at Eisenhower next week in the Division 10 title game. Eisenhower beat El Rancho 34-21 in the other semifinal.
“Amazing. We made history,” Highland senior Marchelo Burgess said. “It feels amazing. We’ve been going all season long, fighting through adversity.
“We picked it up.”
The Bulldogs had their 14-point fourth-quarter lead, 34-20, cut to just one touchdown against Bonita with two minutes remaining.
Highland answered with a 63-yard touchdown run by Burgess with 1:39 remaining after Highland senior Devontae Green recovered an onside kick.
Green then intercepted a pass by Bonita senior quarterback J.P. Andrade in the final minute, nearly returning it for a touchdown as teammates and coaches were yelling for him to take a knee, but a penalty negated the return. Highland was still able to take a knee and clinch its victory.
Highland players sprinted to their sideline after shaking hands with the Bearcats (9-4), celebrating their victory with family, friends and their coaches.
“It was a pretty exciting game. It was a little too close for comfort,” Highland coach Richard Lear said. “You’ve got to expect that kind of game in the semifinals.
“Our kids we prepared for the battle. We just stayed the course. We knew we had a powerful offense and our defense can give people problems. It was a great team win.”
The Bulldogs overcame a sluggish start, that saw Bonita jump out to a 6-0 lead, scoring on their second possession on a 77-yard touchdown pass from Andrade to Bonita junior Ethan Durham.
Andrade threw for 453 yards and three touchdowns on 32-of-57 passing, but he also threw three interceptions and was sacked eight times.
“We never felt comfortable,” Lear said. “They were in it until the end.
“Hats off to Bonita. They went to an empty set. We just had to stop the big plays and we did until the end.”
The Bulldogs came alive in the second quarter, after Highland junior Isaiah Creech intercepted a pass toward the end of the first quarter.
Highland capitalized on the turnover, with senior quarterback Isiah Escobar scoring on a 1-yard run to cap an 8-play, 37-yard drive.
“We just had a few mistakes in the first half,” Escobar said. “We made a few adjustments and came out stronger.
“The next play is the most important play. We just move on.”
Bonita answered by scoring on the next possession, with senior Miles Mouradian scoring on a 2-yard run to cap a 13-play, 73-yard drive to take a 12-8 lead.
But the Bearcats struggled running the ball and almost completely abandoned its ground attack. Bonita finished with negative 9 yards rushing.
The Bearcats’ lead would be shortlived and the last for the game.
Highland answered on its next possession, with Escobar throwing a 39-yard touchdown pass to senior Demani Jamison, giving the Bulldogs a 14-12 lead with 3:50 remaining in the first half.
“It’s a long time in the making,” Highland Escobar said. “We put in a lot of hard work.”
Bonita was forced to punt on the first drive of the second half.
Highland was able to capitalize on its first possession, as Escobar threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to senior D’Sean Yateman-Foster on the second play.
Escobar was shaken up after throwing the deep pass down the middle, but only missed the extra point, as did the Bulldogs.
Escobar nearly matched Bonita’s torrid passing attack. Escobar threw for 249 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-27 passing with one interception.
Escobar also had a more productive running game than Bonita, rushing for 24 yards on eight carries.
Highland pinned Bonita deep in its own territory on the ensuing kickoff and the Bulldogs’ defense delivered.
Highland junior Darius Wilson recovered a Bonita fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, just 32 seconds after the Bulldogs had scored, giving Highland a 28-12 lead with 9:15 remaining in the third quarter.
Bonita’s high-powered offense was not finishing though, as the Bearcats answered with a 13-play, 82-yard drive that was capped by a 3-yard touchdown pass from Andrade to Michael Musharbash, cutting the deficit to 28-20 with 6:12 remaining in the third quarter.
Highland responded with an 82-yard drive of its own, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by senior Darion Dorris, giving the Bulldogs a 34-20 lead.
The Highland defense stopped Bonita on the following drive, as Highland senior Reece Wakely had the first of his two sacks in the game, causing a fumble that was recovered by sophomore Michael Pernisco.
Wakely’s second sack was assisted with a teammate and stopped a Bonita drive with 6:55 remaining in the game.
Bonita did score on a 93-yard pass from Andrade to junior Aalias Williams with two minutes remaining.
Burgess answered with the long touchdown run to seal the victory.
“We have a motto, ‘Go until the wheels fall off and then keep going,’” said Burgess, who rushed for 122 yards on 12 carries. “It was the coaching and the defense. Our defensive line got a push and the secondary caught some balls.
“Our offensive line played well and our running backs.”
The Bulldogs lost in their only other semifinals appearance, in 1996, when Highland went 9-4 under coach Lin Parker.
Highland won its first playoff game since 2011, when the Bulldogs won a first-round game, but lost in the second round after sharing the Golden League title with Quartz Hill.
The Bulldogs are making their first playoff appearance since 2015, when they finished fourth in the Golden League.