The Newport Harbor High football team let a Sunset League title get away three weeks ago at Huntington Beach. Coach Jeff Brinkley called out his team's effort afterward.
The Sailors are going to see that team again next week. You had better believe the Sailors aren't going to lay down in the next meeting.
Newport Harbor will be playing the Oilers for a CIF Southern Section Southwest Division title at Angel Stadium Dec. 7 at 2 p.m.
The Sailors earned a trip to their first section finals appearance in eight years after they defeated Fullerton, 28-17, in the semifinals at Davidson Field on Friday.
A day after Thanksgiving, the Sailors (8-5) have a lot to be thankful for this time of the year. They are still competing and they get another shot at Huntington Beach (8-5), the fifth-place team from the Sunset League. The Oilers stunned defending Southwest Division champion Edison, 28-21, in the semifinals.
"I had a feeling," Brinkley said of the Oilers pulling off the upset against Edison, which won the Sunset League. "They beat us up pretty good the first time [we played and lost, 40-14]. We'll take [a rematch]."
The Sailors are back in a section finale, their eighth in 28 years under Brinkley. They returned because of their second-half play against Fullerton (10-3).
The offense began to find a rhythm late in the third quarter. The Sailors secured the ball after they lost fumbles at the start of the second and third quarters.
Late in the third quarter, with Fullerton ahead, 10-7, Newport Harbor went to the air. Cole Norris, who in the first half looked nothing like the quarterback who threw for 474 yards and five touchdowns last week in the quarterfinals against top-seeded La Habra, came alive. He found wide receiver Cory Stowell on a 52-yard pass, surpassing Norris' first-half yardage on just one play.
Norris went to Stowell again a couple of plays later. He rolled to his left and a hit a wide-open Stowell in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. The play seemed like the same one that worked 2 minutes into the game, when he hooked up with receiver Quest Truxton for an 11-yard touchdown.
Norris' second touchdown pass gave the Sailors a 14-10 lead. And they continued to add to it, the defense playing a key role. Lineman Joey Stukonis made a crucial tackle behind the line of scrimmage and the momentum seemed to switch to Newport Harbor's side before the start of the fourth quarter.
An intentional grounding penalty on quarterback Scott Lloyd pinned Fullerton on its five-yard line. Having to punt from there gave the Sailors great field position, setting up their second touchdown in the second half.
Norris delivered a perfect throw, a 20-yarder to Garrett Hall on the sideline that put Newport Harbor on the one. From there, tailback Chance Siemonsma rushed in for the touchdown to give the Sailors a 21-10 lead.
Norris picked it up in the second half, completing nine of 10 passes for 134 yards. Norris, who finished 15 of 22 for 175 yards and two touchdowns, didn't have to throw a pass in the final 10:52.
The defense clinched the game for the Sailors. With Fullerton at midfield and facing a fourth-and-three, Brinkley told his coaches that the Sailors needed to come up with a turnover. Brinkley grew tired of Lloyd's ability to allude pass rushers and complete shovel passes to keep drives alive.
"Here's what we need, No. 1 or No. 5 to pick one for a pick six," Brinkley said, referring to Truxton and Stowell, his starting cornerbacks.
The player who gave Brinkley what he wanted was No. 4, linebacker Riley Gaddis.
The junior intercepted a pass and took off toward the Sailors' sideline and returned it 57 yards for a touchdown. He stiffed armed his way into the end zone midway through the fourth quarter.
"Right when I got it I knew that I just had to beat everyone … to the end zone," said Gaddis, who also recovered a blocked punt by Dalton Rosene early in the game.
Gaddis and the Sailors have one more game left. They know the opponent well. They know why they were unable to share the Sunset League crown.