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Pirates' resilience a tale of too gritty

11/23/2013, 12:14am PST
By Don Norcross

Oceanside overcomes 23-point deficit to beat Eastlake on the road.

Although Oceanside trailed Eastlake by 23 points at halftime, Pirates QB Matthew Romero said, “I knew after we scored our second touchdown we could win.” Oceanside won 33-30.

— As Oceanside High’s football team walked off the field at halftime of its San Diego Section Open Division semifinal against Eastlake on Friday night, the Pirates’ fate looked as bleak as the coal-black sky.

Oceanside trailed the Titans by 23 points. The Pirates had been dominated. They had been embarrassed. Their mood in the locker room?

“Frustrated,” said head coach John Carroll. “Disappointed in themselves.”

Carroll’s thoughts?

“Fix it,” he said.

If only your neighborhood mechanic were so handy. In a stunning comeback, Oceanside rallied to defeat Eastlake 33-30 on Jackson Koonce’s 19-yard field goal with 4.5 seconds to play.

Koonce yanked off his helmet, sprinted to midfield and was mobbed by seemingly every white-jerseyed Pirates player. The celebration drew a 15-yard penalty.

No matter. Koonce squib kicked, Eastlake returned the ball, lateraled a couple of times, the play died and the Pirates lived on.

An Eastlake player, out for the season with an injury, walked out of the press box, sobbing uncontrollably.

In the middle of the field, Oceanside’s players, fans and coaches jumped up and down, chanting, “We’re going to the Q! We’re going to the Q! We’re going to the Q!”

That would be Qualcomm Stadium, where on Dec. 2 the Pirates will face rival Mission Hills, a 24-21 winner over Helix. It’ll be a dandy of a rematch, Mission Hills having thumped Oceanside 30-6 back in September.

Charles Dickens penned “A Tale of Two Cities.” This was a tale of two halves.

On Eastlake’s first play from scrimmage, Isaiah Strayhorn burst up the middle and sprinted 80 yards to a touchdown.

“It feels good to start out that fast,” said Strayhorn on the sideline. Then he prophetically added, “There’s a lot more game to play, sir.”

An interception on Oceanside’s ensuing possession positioned Eastlake on the Pirates’ 19. Strayhorn up the middle again, touchdown again. The game was less than four minutes old and Eastlake led 14-0.

“They don’t want it all day, Isaiah,” a sideline spectator yelled to Strayhorn. “All day.”

The Titans added two more TD runs, a safety and at intermission the Pirates were staring at a 30-7 deficit. Eastlake had ground and pound 265 yards rushing.

At halftime, one of Oceanside’s most famous alums, Willie Buchanon, said, “I am stunned. They are not tackling. They aren’t executing. They’re doing too much complaining. They just need to settle down and play.”

Ninety minutes before kickoff, lightning lit up the sky, thunder cracked in the distance, rain pelted the field. And the damp conditions may have played a factor in Oceanside’s comeback.

Eastlake’s punter dropped a snap, setting up Thai Cottrell’s 3-yard TD run with 2:48 to play in the third quarter. Matthew Romero hit Cottrell on a 4-yard TD pass. It was 30-22 following a two-point conversion with 9:30 to play.

Next possession, a one-play, 72-yard “drive,” Romero to Mikah Holder. Another two-point conversion. Tied at 30.

Then, then the winning drive. Pirates take over at the 50 with 1:28 to play. Five-yard penalty. Illegal motion. Intentional grounding. Second-and-22 from the 38. Eighteen-yard completion to Holder. Nine yards to Cottrell. First down.

Romero a 14-yard scramble. Spike the ball. Incompletion. Romero to Holder another 15 yards to the 6.

Three plays later, in trotted Koonce. Split the uprights. A shocking comeback. And a devastating loss for Eastlake.

Carroll, now in his 24th season, said it wasn’t the Pirates’ best comeback ever.

“No, thank God we’ve done it before,” Carroll said. “But the best this year. Fantastic.”

Carroll lauded Eastlake.

“They were ready to play,” he said.

But for the coach who has battled health issues the past few weeks, forcing him to miss practices and coach from the press box, he couldn’t conceal his pride in his team.

“We just showed what Oceanside football is about,” Carroll said.

Come Dec. 2, the Pirates will attempt to win their ninth section title in 10 years.

“I’m so proud of our kids right now,” said Carroll, whose voice still sounds weak and who didn’t join the on-field celebration.

“What an incredible comeback.”

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