Coming into last Thursday’s night contest between San Diego Jewish Academy and host Calvin Christian, it was obvious that something had to give. Both teams were undefeated and possessed offenses that were hitting on most, if not all, cylinders.
Eventually, it was the Lions (3-1) who gradually yielded but not before one heck of a battle was waged. Unquestionably, this was the toughest and most competitive game that either team had been involved in to date.
But thanks to a 21-point second half and a sterling all-around performance by running back/linebacker Wesley Salzman, CC managed to hold off the game Lions and emerge with a hard fought 37- 26 victory. This latest success by the Crusaders kept their overall record perfect (6- 0) as well as their Pacific (League) ledger unblemished (2-0).
Though there were plenty of other contributors to the Crusaders’ cause, the sophomore Salzman was clearly the igniter of this triumph, making numerous big plays, scoring on two runs and a two-point conversion and flying all over the field on defense. Salzman’s imprint on the field this night was eclipsed by no one but teammate Daniel Esguerra was a mighty force as well. More about Esguerra a bit later.
Calvin Christian is not a team accustomed to being behind but that was the situation it faced when the Lions scored on the game’s first possession. Aided by a critical pass interference penalty that helped keep their drive alive, the Lions struck first when quarterback Jordan Battaglia floated a pass down the middle to an all-by-his-lonesome Elliot Muller. With nary a soul between him and the goal line, Muller utilized his rather distinctive gait to hightail it some 57 yards to paydirt. When SDJA tacked on the PAT, it owned an early 7-0 lead.
With its vaunted running game being held in check at the outset by an active Lion defense, it wasn’t until CC’s fourth possession that the hosts finally started gaining some traction offensively.
This particular series was set up, however, by the Crusader “D” which brought heavy pressure with a blitz on Battaglia. The result was a hurried and under-thrown pass that defensive back Bryce Lovisa was nicely positioned to intercept.
This important pick temporarily changed the game’s momentum and the Crusaders were quick to capitalize on the opportunity. CC quarterback Matt Lafler got things going when he found Salzman on a 19-yard crossing route. Three plays later, Lafler drilled a shot to wideout Jordan Thomsen who made an artful stretch and grab that garnered 18 more yards. From there, Lafler found a hole to his right and with a determined run, drove in from the 8. And when Salzman spun off a tackle to complete a successful two-point conversion, it was the Crusaders who were now on top 8-7 with 7:38 left before halftime.
But the undeterred Lions responded immediately. After a substantial kickoff return by Sebastian Mayer got SDJA up near midfield, Battaglia soon after went for the home run with a deep bomb down the left sideline. Waiting for this honey of a pitch was receiver Cody Brown who had created separation between himself and Crusader DB Thomsen. Brown hauled in the throw without having to break his stride and this beautiful 53-yard hookup once again had the Lions in front 13-8.
Now it was the Crusaders’ time to answer and they were more than up to the task. It took them just under three minutes to travel a lengthy 78 yards in nine plays. This march was sustained when the ubiquitous Salzman, a smooth operator to be sure, took a quick hitch pass and hustled down the sideline for a key third-down pickup that netted 18 yards. From here, it was that man Salzman again, taking a hand-off and with solid blocking paving the way, he burst through the middle at the point of attack. Once in the clear, he stutter-stepped briefly and then veered to his left before outracing everyone to the end zone. This bolt of Salzman lightning from the 31 yards out once more flipped the score. And when Esguerra added two more points on a hard conversion run, CC went to the locker room up by a 16-13 count.
Seeking to build further on their advantage, the Crusaders made their second possession of the final half pay off handsomely in the form of a 6-play, 68-yard touchdown excursion. The signature play occurred when the speedy Esguerra bolted straight ahead, angled left and hustled down the sideline for a huge 32-yard pickup. Two plays later, Lovisa, doubling as a wideout, got behind the Lions secondary. Lafler then calmly dropped a nicely touched 17-yard pass to his isolated receiver who had no one between him and the goal line. Nearly midway through the third quarter, CC had expanded its margin to 22-13.
At this juncture, Calvin’s defense continued its solid play, stopping the Lions on a third straight possession. Taking over at their own 47, the Crusaders’ vibe suggested that they sensed another touchdown coming and sure enough they got it. Again it was the rapid Esguerra who occupied center stage when he bounced to the outside and motored down the right sideline for an exciting 38-yard TD scamper. By no means done with his individual heroics, Esguerra then pierced the end zone with a two-point conversion run and things were beginning to look quite comfortable for the host Crusaders at 29-13 late in the third stanza.
But not so fast — because the Lions had by no means given up the fight. Starting at their own 25 after the ensuing kickoff, the visitors were about to embark on a 75-yard scoring march. Sebastian Mayer’s 35-yard tote off an inside hand-off set SDJA up inside the 10. And on the following play, Brennan Rubin showed plenty of strength when he shook off a tackler before powering past the goal line. The aroused Lions had drawn closer and were now within striking distance at 29-19.
And despite the repeated warnings by CC head coach Randy Kreglow about the probability of a SDJA onside kick, the Crusaders still fell victim to it, with David Smith recovering for the Lions. Taking over at their own 46, the Lions drove methodically down the field and on the tenth play of this advance, Rubin rammed in from the 1. When the PAT was tacked on, the Crusader lead had shriveled to but three at 29-26.
With momentum clearly on its side, SDJA tried to ride it for all it was worth with another onside try. However, this time an alert Bryce Vander Woude made a nice grab of the bouncing ball and the result was great field position for CC that it quickly capitalized on. Wanting to burn some clock and keep things somewhat conservative, the Crusaders went ground heavy here and ran the ball seven straight times. A superb 18-yard carry by Salzman, in which he got to the edge, set the table for the clinching score. And fittingly, it was Salzman who finished things off when he swept left, made a sharp cut back and scooted in from 7 yards out. One final two-point conversion, this one a nice collaboration between Lafler and Thomsen, put the score at 37-26 with under four minutes left and basically salted things away for Calvin.
In an important winning effort, it certainly had been a productive evening for the Crusaders’ featured backfield duo. Salzman had a combined rushing and receiving total of 143 yards while Esguerra parlayed a 60-yard dash into a hefty 167-yard effort. Not to be forgotten, Lafler was efficiency personified as he delivered scores with both his legs and his arm.
Meanwhile, the defense had performed admirably in neutralizing to a significant extent a Lion attack that had averaged 51 points entering the contest. Spearheading the defensive effort were Anthony Coseo with 9 total tackles and Lafler with 8 while Salzman and Nico Brower ably pitched in with 6 apiece. And Lovisa’s INT must be acknowledged because it came at a time when the Crusaders were somewhat under the gun.
Now armed with the knowledge that they have the wherewithal to win a tight one as well as those that involve a lopsided score, the Crusaders will continue their pursuit of perfection, not to mention a second straight CIF Division 6 championship. Should Salzman and Esguerra remain the dangerous threats that they were against the Lions, Calvin is, in all likelihood, headed towards something special.