During the first quarter of the game at Whittier, the Leopards’ junior quarterback Anthony Andre (No. 9) is tackled to by defensive end Matthew Gocke. Pulling up at the end of the play were offensive linemen Dylan Keith (No. 55) and Kamuran Aryas (No. 77).
Playing under the bright lights at Memorial Stadium in Whittier, the football team achieved something Saturday that they have not done since head coach Andy Ankeny’s arrival last season.
In front of more than 800 fans, the Leopards won their second game of the season, beating the Whittier Poets, 24-21, and spoiling their senior night.
The story of the night for La Verne was their defense, which blocked two of Whittier’s field goals, including one that would have tied the game with only 17 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Saturday’s victory marks La Verne’s second win in its last three games. Both wins have come against Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference opponents.
“Winning games like that…it just helps our team grow,” Ankeny said. “Sometimes being able to win ugly is a good thing.”
Junior quarterback Anthony Andre returned as the starter against the Poets.
Andre, who was replaced in the second quarter of the Leopards’ loss against Occidental on Oct. 25 with freshman quarterback Christian Winnewisser, returned to form against Whittier.
Andre finished the game with 259 yards passing to go along with one touchdown run.
“They came to me and told me I was still the guy, and that I needed to come out and continue to work hard,” Andre said. “There’s no added pressure; I just wanted to come out here and win for the team. That’s the most important thing to me, no matter what my stats are.”
“He (Andre) played well,” Ankeny said. “He threw the ball well and did a bunch of good things. It was good to see him rebound and play that way.”
La Verne’s defense, led by junior defensive back Taylor Hart, held the Poets scoreless on their first five drives of the game, including a blocked field goal attempt by Whittier kicker Eric Cejudo in the beginning of the second quarter.
Hart led La Verne with 11 total tackles in the game.
On offense, Andre guided a 15-play, 97-yard drive for the Leopards that resulted in sophomore wide receiver Jacob Tobias’ one-yard touchdown run.
With a 7-0 lead, La Verne wasted no time getting the ball back in Andre’s hands, as he once again led a successful touchdown drive, this time running it in the end zone himself, to extend the lead to 14-0.
Whittier showed some signs of life just before halftime with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Pete Mitchell to Shawn Briggs.
Briggs finished the game with seven receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown.
In the third quarter both teams played solid defense.
Although Whittier controlled the clock and was able to get deep inside the red zone, the Leopards’ defense held tight by thwarting the Poets fourth down attempt with a sack on Mitchell and again later in the quarter by forcing a fumble that was recovered by freshman defensive back Ryan Baranek on the ULV nine-yard line.
“We stopped them with effort,” junior linebacker Branamier Courtney said. “We preached effort all week. No one gave up on plays; everyone ran to the ball…we just stayed focused and did our job.”
Courtney is currently second on the team with 53 tackles on the season.
The Leopards’ tandem of Andre and senior wide receiver Phi Van Le got La Verne’s offense moving to start the fourth quarter with a five play, 59-yard drive that was capped off with a one-yard touchdown run from Tobias.
Le caught four passes for 88 yards against the Poets.
“Everyone was open all night,” Le said. “Andre could’ve looked to any side and any one of us would’ve been open. We had a really good night as a team. Our o-line’s been stepping up, and that’s what’s been making us better every week.”
On the ensuing kickoff, Whittier’s Oreese Hoyes returned the kick 45 yards as the Poets took advantage of the good field position, marching 49 yards on nine plays that resulted in a one yard quarterback sneak from Mitchell.
After Cejudo missed the extra point, the score remained 21-13.
On their next possession, La Verne was able to tack on three points to increase its lead to 24-13 off freshman Wesley Dean’s 32-yard field goal.
Trailing by nine points with three minutes left, Whittier got another big return from Hoyes, who returned the kickoff 49 yards to the La Verne 48-yard line.
After four plays, including one roughing the passer penalty, and one pass interference call by the Leopards, Mitchell was able to find running back Anthony Pomponio open for a three-yard touchdown score.
Pomponio had a huge day, leading the Poets with 241 yards of total offense.
After Whittier converted the two-point conversion, cutting their deficit to 24-21, they successfully recovered an onside kick on their own 37-yard line.
The stage was set for a Whittier comeback as it started its drive down three points with two minutes left in the game.
Whittier had the Leopards on their heels as they converted on a third-and-16 play, and a fourth-and-11 play to take the ball all the way down to the ULV nine-yard line.
With 17 seconds left on the clock, Cejudo’s 26-yard field goal was blocked by the Leopards to seal the victory for La Verne.
“I was ecstatic, relieved and glad we pulled this off,” Ankeny said. “We played with great energy and great effort. We need to continue to get better and be a better tackling team. Overall, we pressured their quarterback all night long.”
“Our defense has been keeping us in games all season,” Andre said. “It’s pretty exciting to see how much we’ve grown since week one.”
“It feels great to build momentum for next year, for the young guys and just closing out the season like we know we should’ve started it”, Courtney said.
The Leopards play tomorrow at Cal Lutheran at 1 p.m.
Richard Lugo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.