San Marcos players celebrate after they beat Granite Hills in the Division III semifinals on Friday.
SAN MARCOS First, a history lesson. The last time San Marcos High played for a San Diego Section football championship was 1987.
Ronald Reagan occupied the White House. Michael Jackson released the album “Bad.” Michael Douglas and Glenn Close starred in “Fatal Attraction.”
And the Knights made their way to Qualcomm Stadium, tying San Pasqual 14-14 to share the Class 2-A championship.
So when the clock ticked down Friday night on San Marcos’ 28-17 Division III semifinal victory over Granite Hills at Excalibur Field, you can understand why bedlam broke loose.
“Guys,” San Marcos second-year head coach Jason Texler told his players as they gathered around him near midfield, “we’ve got something to do next Saturday.”
That would be to play for the section title against Christian, which knocked off Hilltop on Friday.
Responded one of the Knights after Texler’s message, “Let’s get that ring!”
The heroes were many for San Marcos. Try 5-foot-7, 147-pound senior wide receiver Isiah Hennie, who entered the game leading the section with 91 receptions.
Granite Hills limited Hennie to two catches for 12 yards. So Hennie found other ways to beat the visitors. His sack on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the third quarter turned back Granite Hills when San Marcos’ lead stood at 21-14.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Eagles having pulled to within 21-17, Hennie picked off a pass at midfield. He cut back, downshifted, then outsprinted would-be tacklers who appeared to have an angle on him for a 48-yard TD return.
“I just make big plays when my team needs me,” Hennie said. “If it’s on defense instead of offense, so be it.”
Another big-time Knight: junior quarterback Will Freed. A talented passer, Freed threw for more than 1,200 yards in the first four weeks of the season. But in Week 4, he took a shot to the mug against Escondido, suffered a broken jaw, and started eating out of a straw.
At 6-2, he dropped from 174 pounds to 159. He didn’t play for 10 weeks. Friday night, he stepped onto the field for the first time since needing his jaw wired.
His first-half stats: 2-of-4, 12 yards, two interceptions.
“I was pretty bummed,” Freed said.
But a good quarterback must resemble a good cornerback when it comes to dealing with failure — no short-term memory.
“I flushed it,” Freed said.
So with the game tied 14-14 in the third quarter, Freed dropped back, was pushed from the pocket, rolled right, and tossed a 27-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass to Tyler Nix.
“Felt good,” Freed said. “Felt real good.”
On the other sideline, there was heartbreak for Granite Hills. This is a program that has been resurrected by 27-year-old, second-year head coach Kellan Cobbs, who played quarterback at the school.
You want struggles? The Eagles were 34-88 in the previous 12 seasons. Granite Hills’ last on-field playoff victory came 27 years ago, in 1986. (There was a win by forfeit in 1997.)
Those ’87 Eagles were led by Tommy Vardell, who came to be known as “Touchdown” Tommy when he began denting end zones at Stanford.
Bill Belichick, hardly a genius at the time with the Browns, selected Vardell with the ninth pick of the 1992 draft.
Vardell would play for four NFL teams across eight seasons. Among his claims to fame: blocking for Barry Sanders.
Asked if his teenagers are aware of Vardell’s significance, Cobbs said: “They know his name. Heck, they might not even know who Barry Sanders is.”
There will be no joy in El Cajon this morning. But there should be much pride. The Eagles once struggled keeping players eligible and making players want to commit to year-round weightlifting.
Cobbs corrected that.
“His enthusiasm,” Jacob Burton said of Cobb’s influence. “He makes playing fun.”
And as the San Marcos players mugged for TV cameras and pictures for mom and dad, assistant principal Barry Zeait took in the scene.
“It’s a big day for this school,” Zeait said. “A big day, a big moment.”