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In the 50-year history of Dana Hill High School, the Dolphins football program had never stood alone at the top of its league.
Dana Hills toiled for years in the juggernaut South Coast League against Mater Dei, Mission Viejo and San Clemente but could never get over the hump. The Dolphins finally captured a league championship in 2012, but it was a three-way split for the Sea View League between Dana Hills, Capistrano Valley and Laguna Hills.
However, all of that was put in the past on Friday night, Oct. 27.
Dana Hills overcame a slow first quarter and turned on the jets in the second half to pull away from visiting Northwood, 42-21, to capture the Pacific Coast League championship and the first outright league championship in program history.
“It’s insane,” said Dana Hills senior Cooper Walsh, whose physical play popped up a game-changing pick-six and another fumble recovery on Friday. “We came in this group freshman year. We couldn’t roster a full (freshman) team. Sophomore year, we went 3-7. The same group we just came back to work and grinded and took our league championship for the first time ever. It’s a great feeling.”
Nearly every high school football team lists a league championship as its goal at the start of the season, but the Dolphins went about manifesting it from the first day of its offseason workouts last winter.
“We were in the gym in February and just looking at the banner,” Dana Hills senior Noah Kucera said. “There was only one up there, and it was a (three)-way tie. For us to start 2-2 and finish 8-2 and win like that, it’s sick.”
During training camp in August, Dana Hills head coach Tony Henney talked about this Dolphins program reaching its next level. Dana Hills had established winning records and back-to-back playoff appearances, but to continue the transformation of this program, the Dolphins needed a league championship to raise expectations. Dana Hills took that first step Friday.
“For us, this is going to be the first outright league championship, and that’s a huge deal,” Henney said, “but you want it to go from ‘Can we win league this year?’ to ‘We win league. That’s what we do here.’ As much as you’re setting that first special one, you’re also trying to set the mindset when eighth graders come in as freshmen, they go ‘We win league here.’”
Dana Hills (8-2, 3-0) has now qualified for the CIF-SS playoffs for the third consecutive season, and the Dolphins will hunt for their first CIF-SS playoff victory since 2009. Dana Hills should slide into Division 6 when CIF-SS playoff brackets will be revealed on Sunday, Oct. 29, at 10 a.m.
“I don’t know if this score really helped our division set up,” Henney said with a laugh. “We’ll see what we get. We’ll play whoever. When you play as well as we have, you deserve where you go. We’ve got to be ready to go.”
Dana Hills didn’t open as ready to go on Friday with an up-and-down first half, but Dana Hills found its groove in the third quarter.
The Dolphins nearly caught Northwood sleeping with a brilliant onside kick attempt to open the half, but Dana Hills was called for interference after the ball did not hit the ground before Kucera’s sliding catch on the high-popping kick.
Nonetheless, Dana Hills forced a 3-and-out, and quarterback Jace Lowe took advantage of man coverage to get the Dolphins moving. A 38-yard catch by Chase Berry and a 26-yard catch by Kucera set up a 6-yard strike to Niki Grguric, who made the juggling grab for the lead, 21-14.
Dana Hills then jumped out by two scores, as Walsh made an impact hit on the intended receiver of a third-down pass attempt by Northwood that popped the ball directly into the hands of senior Mitch Hill. Hill ran 36 yards uncontested to the endzone for a 28-14 lead.
“Maybe we had some nerves. It felt that way a little bit in pregame,” Henney said of the early slow start. “We calmed down, and I think Cooper’s play was the play where everyone was like, ‘Here we go. This is happening tonight.’”
Walsh also recovered a fumble on the ensuing Northwood drive, and Kucera reeled in a 35-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to keep Dana Hills pushing, 35-14.
Northwood had one last swing with a touchdown pass just two minutes later, but the Dolphins answered with a clock-eating drive on the ground capped by Lowe’s fifth touchdown pass of the night, a 24-yarder to Berry.
Lowe completed 19 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. Kucera caught eight passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Berry caught five passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. Grguric caught three passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
Morgan Smith intercepted Northwood’s last desperate attempt at the buzzer to start the league championship party at Dana Hills.
“This game was indicative of (adversity faced this season),” Henney said. “We had a bunch of things kind of going wrong, and this team has just done a great job of just finding a way. They did it tonight. I thought we looked like a league champion in the second half. I thought we played real hard and real smart.”
The Dolphins were out of sync on offense in the first quarter and Northwood took an early lead with a 70-yard touchdown pass, 6-0.
However, the Dolphins focused in with back-to-back fourth down stops to end the first quarter and set up their offense for a quick turnaround in the second quarter.
Lowe found Grguric on the first play of the second quarter, and Grguric fought off a draped defender and sprinted 67-yards for the tying touchdown. Dana Hills went ahead on the extra point, 7-6, following a fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff, the Dolphins pushed out with a 30-yard strike from Lowe to Kucera.
In nine seconds and two offensive plays, Dana Hills went from struggling to ahead by eight points.
Kucera denied Northwood points on the next drive with an interception and 34-yard return, but a 3-and-out and a high punt snap by Dana Hills put the Timberwolves at the 2-yard line. Northwood ran in the touchdown and two-point conversion to go into halftime tied, 14-14.