The turnaround started late, very late, in the season. If you were to look at what was to bind the Huntington Beach Oilers together and send them on to what has been both an improbable and incredible postseason ride, you would find it in family ties.
Huntington's unstoppable run over the past month has catapulted the Oilers to where all teams hope the season ends: in a CIF Southern Section football championship game. They will get the chance to win their first section title when they face Sunset League rival Newport Harbor in the Southwest Division final.
The Oilers, the home team for the game, and Sailors kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday at Angel Stadium.
Both teams enter the game with 8-5 records.
"It's unreal to think that we will be playing for a CIF championship," Huntington junior defensive lineman Hojun Lee said after his sack on the final play of last Friday's semifinal game sealed a 28-21 victory over No. 3-seeded and defending division champion Edison at Orange Coast College. "I'm so proud of my team and coaches. It's a great feeling."
Huntington's late-season surge started with a key game against Newport Harbor, and the Oilers will end their season Saturday against the Sailors.
Before that first meeting between the teams on Nov. 8 at Huntington, Oilers Coach Eric Lo did something that would, unbeknownst to him, alter the course of the season for his team.
"It was Senior Night, and I invited the fathers of our senior players into the locker room," he said. "I really think we have a great group of seniors, and I wanted to do something special. We went out and played a real good game that night against Newport.
"Since that game, we have invited families into the locker room before our games. Parents, siblings, grandparents, people have supported our program. It's really been powerful and fantastic, this love for each other that has been on display. It has really united this team."
The first pregame locker room visit served as inspiration to Huntington, which went on to defeat Newport Harbor, 40-14, on Senior Night. That win allowed the Oilers the chance to be considered for an at-large berth to the playoffs, which they received. Since landing that bid, they've gone out and took their playoff opportunity by storm.
And Lo continued the newly formed pregame ritual. He said he extended an open invitation to anyone who wanted to visit pregame before the Oilers took on No. 2-seeded Yorba Linda in a first-round game Nov .15. A week later, the pregame visit drew an even bigger crowd for a home quarterfinal game against San Juan Hills.
Last week at OCC, Lo said nearly 100 well-wishers came into the locker room before the Oilers took the field at LeBard Stadium for its showdown with Edison. One of those in on the pregame talks via Skype was the father of starting defensive/back-up tight end Liam Jimmons. The sophomore said his father, Edward Jimmons, a Staff Sergeant and Commanding Officer with the National Guards, is serving a tour of duty and stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"It was pretty crazy that night," Liam Jimmons said. "I had kind of felt left out the other nights because everyone else had their dad there in the locker room before game time. I had asked Coach Lo if I could Skype my dad in last week.
"It was really emotional. My dad and I talked later that night, and we almost cried. He got to see me score my first touchdown."
"It's all about being together," Lo said. "It's about family unity, trust, love. Some emotional things have been said in the locker rooms before these games, and our hearts are full when we go out to play."
At Yorba Linda, the Oilers posted a 17-point win (31-14) over the then-10-0 Mustangs. In the quarterfinals, they roared to a 42-0 lead, which resulted in a running clock for the fourth quarter and a 42-12 victory over a 10-1 San Juan Hills team. Against Edison (9-4), they bolted to a 20-0 advantage, fell behind early in the second half, but came right back to score, which led to an eventual, 28-21 upset win.
That's three wins, over three league champions, in three weeks.
Huntington has trailed only once during postseason play. When Edison scored midway through the third quarter of Friday's semifinal game to take a 21-20 lead, the Oilers immediately responded by marching 80 yards in four minutes for the winning score.
Huntington took the opening kickoff and proceeded to march 75 yards for the game's first score. Sophomore running back Travis Heer scored on a 43-yard run. A blocked punt by senior strong safety Drew Becker at the end of Edison's first possession set up Huntington's next score, a four-yard pass from senior quarterback Kai Ross to senior receiver Maurice Barber. On Edison's ensuing possession, Barber came up with an interception near midfield and a big return set the Oilers up at the Edison 33-yard line. Ross would hit Jimmons with a four-yard TD pass for a stunning, 20-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter.