Nathaniel Espinoza rushed for 190 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 224 yards and three touchdowns in Corona del Mar High's 42-35 win over Roosevelt on Friday. (Christine Cotter)
Almost every part of TaeVeon Le’s body was in pain, from his ankle, to his calf, to his knee, to his head. To top it off, he came down with an infection. He wasn’t sure if it was the flu or cold, but whatever it was, it kept him in bed for a couple of days and from practicing all week.
Coach Dan O’Shea did not believe the wide receiver would be able to play for Corona del Mar High on Friday. Knowing it was the start of the CIF Southern Section Division 4 playoffs, Le willed himself onto the field.
The senior showed he is good enough to win a football game with one hand.
With his left hand, Le kept the Sea Kings’ season alive by making an unbelievable one-handed touchdown catch near the pylon. Le’s 26-yard score with 14 seconds to go lifted No. 4-seeded CdM to a thrilling 42-35 come-from-behind win against visiting Eastvale Roosevelt at Newport Harbor High.
When time expired, Le crashed to the turf. The Sea Kings needed Le, at 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, to make one play against Nebraska-bound cornerback Chase Williams. And Le, who is heading to Harvard, beat the four-star recruit with the game on the line.
Corona del Mar's TaeVeon Le (12) reaches for the ball in front of Roosevelt cornerback Jaylen Martin during the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 4 playoffs on Friday. (Christine Cotter)
How Le and the Sea Kings (10-1) got the chance to rally late was unreal. They had gone for the go-ahead score 13 seconds earlier, only to see Roosevelt stop quarterback Nathaniel Espinoza on a two-point conversion run, keeping the Mustangs up 35-34 with 27 seconds left.
That was probably the only time Roosevelt (6-5) stopped Espinoza, who ran all over the defense for 190 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 224 yards and three touchdowns. Espinoza, a senior, got the chance to get his sixth touchdown because of kicker Max Casper.
There is a reason why Espinoza said he loves his kicker. The left-footed Casper not only kicked an onside kick, he recovered it, too.
The onside kick set the Sea Kings up near midfield. Twenty-seven seconds are how many Espinoza had to get CdM into field-goal range to set up a chance for Casper to win it.
Casper, who can kick from 47 yards out, had done enough already. O’Shea then gave the offense a couple of plays to strike. Espinoza and the Sea Kings wasted little time. They attacked through the air.
The first-down play — Espinoza’s 23-yard pass to John Humphreys — put CdM at Roosevelt’s 26 with 20 seconds on the clock. On the following play, Espinoza went to Le on the left, throwing it his way, and somehow Le hauled it in, hitting the pylon and holding onto the ball as he fell forward out of bounds.
Nathaniel Espinoza throws a 26-yard TD pass to TaeVeon Le, who makes a one-handed catch near the pylon. Corona del Mar leads Roosevelt 40-35 with 14 seconds left to play.
Roosevelt coach Tommy Leach said he did not think Le made the catch inbounds. It did take four seconds before one of the two officials near the end zone put his arms up to signal a touchdown.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better pass, it came right at my hand, and the defender didn’t really see it coming,” said Le, who had three receptions for 62 yards. “It was a perfect pass.”
The play resulted in what O’Shea said was probably “the greatest win” he and offensive coordinator Kevin Hettig have experienced at CdM. That is saying a lot since the two have won a lot — three section titles and a CIF State title — during their seven years with the Sea Kings.
A reason why O’Shea and Hettig said decided to go for the win, instead of tying it after Espinoza’s eight-yard touchdown run cut Roosevelt’s lead to one with 27 seconds left, was because of how last year’s Division 4 final ended. The Sea Kings lost in double overtime to Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, and they did not want to go into overtime with another outstanding program.
This one felt like another championship game. The Sea Kings moved a step closer to the real thing, as they get to play host to Downey (9-2) in the quarterfinals next week.
Le’s incredible. To make a catch like that on a four-star corner [with the game on the line] is insane. That guy is pretty special.— CdM wide receiver John Humphreys
The game plan put together by Hettig gave CdM a shot to continue its season. He knew the Sea Kings had to run against the talented and fast Mustangs, who began the year ranked No. 1 in Division 4, and keep them off the field. The Sea Kings ran 51 times for 285 yards, 31 of those carries were by Espinoza and 18 by J.T. Murphy, who had 75 yards.
With how Hawaii-bound quarterback Jeremy Moussa throws the ball, the senior had 2,700 yards and 31 touchdowns, with only three interceptions during the regular season, CdM had to limit his opportunities. It was not easy slowing Moussa down or the Mustangs, who earned an at-large entry into the postseason.
The game almost got away from CdM in the first 10 minutes. Twice they allowed long touchdown passes, as Braedin Huffman-Dixon burned the secondary and helped Roosevelt to take a 13-0 lead.
The first time Moussa found Huffman-Dixon, the junior was running up the CdM sideline. He hit him in stride at the 50-yard line, and Huffman-Dixon was gone before you could finish saying his last name. His 80-yard touchdown catch came at the 5:13 mark, and almost three minutes later, Huffman-Dixon, who finished with six receptions for 175 yards, was on his way to the end zone again.
Moussa, who completed 25 of 34 passes for 381 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception, made it possible for his receiver. He bought time by moving up in the pocket, and before the defense could get to him, Moussa threw it to his left, over the middle. All alone near the 15-yard line was Huffman-Dixon, and he jogged in to complete a 45-yard touchdown.
The Sea Kings answered in the second quarter. They relied on Espinoza’s legs, as twice he moved the chains on fourth down.
The only plays in the first half that seemed to work against Roosevelt were runs by the fearless and speedy Espinoza. His touchdown runs of one and 14 yards in the second quarter gave CdM a 14-13 lead.
Roosevelt wound up retaking the lead 4½ minutes into the second half. Running back Dennis Kersee recorded the first of his two five-yard touchdown runs to put the Mustangs up 21-14.
The Sea Kings managed to even things up on Espinoza’s 33-yard touchdown pass to a diving Humphreys in the end zone in the third quarter. Humphreys, who had eight catches for 145 yards, added another touchdown grab to tie it at 28-28 midway through the fourth quarter.
Corona del Mar's John Humphreys fights off Roosevelt defensive back Tyson McDonald for an eight-yard gain in the second quarter. He finished with eight receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns. (Christine Cotter)
Humphreys got a little lucky on the second touchdown, a 34-yarder. The sophomore was at the right place at the right time when Espinoza’s pass to Mark Redman bounced off Redman’s right hand and into Humphreys’ hands near the 20-yard line.
“I just saw the ball pop up, and I wasn’t thinking, I just grabbed it and starting running [to the end zone],” said Humphreys, adding that his catch was not even the craziest of the night, that one belonged to Le. “Le’s incredible. To make a catch like that on a four-star corner [with the game on the line] is insane. That guy is pretty special.”
CIF Southern Section Division 4 playoffs
Corona del Mar 42, Roosevelt 35
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Roosevelt 13 – 0 – 8 – 14 — 35
Corona del Mar 0 – 14 – 7 – 21 — 42
R – Huffman-Dixon 80 pass from Moussa (Tapia kick), 5:13.
R – Huffman-Dixon 45 pass from Moussa (kick blocked), 2:15.
CdM – Espinoza 1 run (Casper kick), 7:43.
CdM – Espinoza 14 run (Casper kick), :37.
R – Kersee 5 run (Moussa run), 7:27.
CdM – Humphreys 33 pass from Espinoza (Casper kick), 2:02.
R – Rivera 20 pass from Moussa (Tapia kick), 11:56.
CdM – Humphreys 33 pass from Espinoza (Casper kick), 6:21.
R – Kersee 5 run (Moussa run), 3:27.
CdM – Espinoza 8 run (run failed), :27.
CdM – Le 26 pass from Espinoza (Espinoza run), :14.
R – Thornton, 9-35.
CdM – Espinoza, 31-190, 3 TDs.
R – Moussa, 25-34-1, 381, 3 TDs.
CdM – Espinoza, 13-23-0, 224, 3 TDs.
R – Huffman-Dixon, 6-175, 2 TDs.
CdM – Humphreys, 8-145, 2 TDs.