After slogging through a season littered with bad breaks and endless injuries, the La Quinta High School football team looked revitalized last week against Palm Desert.
Rolling up 380 rushing yards, the Blackhawks blew out the Aztecs 63-40. With renewed confidence from that performance, they hope to forget all of their struggles from the beginning of the year by continuing their strong play of late in the CIF Central Division playoffs.
“We went through a rough time obviously at the beginning,” junior offensive lineman Ben Simonds said, “but I think we came together better that game (against the Aztecs). I think, all in all, we’ve got a good chance at making a good run.”
La Quinta’s bad luck started this summer as its top two wide receivers were injured during passing league games. Marcus Simerson broke his collarbone, and one week later, junior Dejon Wilson severely injured his knee. There was no contact on the play. Wilson, who was selected to the all-CIF Central Division team as a sophomore, was out for the year.
The injuries multiplied. Starting running back Kenyon Williams had a breakout performance in La Quinta’s season opener against Los Osos before breaking his left foot.
The team’s troubles mounted when it traveled to Riverside to take on Arlington the following week. Coaches had to reshuffle the offensive line because several players were suspended and junior Ben Simonds was sidelined with walking pneumonia. In total, nine players missed the game.
“We thought we were going to get buried,” La Quinta coach Dan Armstrong said.
Despite their worries, the Blackhawks were poised to take the lead over Arlington in the second quarter. But running Isaiah Verazas, who otherwise played an outstanding game, fumbled near the goal line, and Arlington returned it 99 yards for a touchdown, propelling the Lions to a 24-14 victory. La Quinta lost its next three non-league games to fall to 0-5 as the adversity “almost became comical,” Armstrong said.
The Blackhawks’ fortunes brightened as players such as Nick Licalsi, Darius Griffin, Jake Rubadou and Simerson returned from injury and Desert Valley League play began.
The offensive line began to live up to its tremendous potential. Starting quarterback Alex Beyma, who was benched against Roosevelt, won back his job and cut down on his mistakes. La Quinta blew out Indio and Coachella Valley to improve to 2-5, setting up a pivotal game against Palm Springs.
The Blackhawks reclaimed their identity against Palm Springs after a crucial mistake late in the third quarter. Beyma botched a handoff, and Indians linebacker Michael Greer returned the fumble 7 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 7-0 lead.
Disappointed with how his team was playing, Armstrong reacted by calling for his offense’s “hog” package, which features two tight ends and a running back, fullback and an offensive lineman in the backfield.
“I was like, ‘I don’t care if we lose. We’re going to get physical, and we’re going to play La Quinta football,’ ” Armstrong said.
Something immediately clicked as the Blackhawks went on two long scoring drives to take a 14-7 lead. They eventually lost the game 20-14 in overtime, but their improved play was encouraging.
From the outset last week, the Blackhawks mixed in their “hog” package against Palm Desert. Gaining 448 yards, they put together their best offensive performance of the season, bouncing back from their lone turnover late in the second quarter to dominate the Aztecs in the second half.
La Quinta wasn’t immune, however, from bad breaks. Williams sprained his right ankle, and he won’t play tonight against Colony “unless a miracle happens,” Armstrong said.
Still, after a tumultuous start, the Blackhawks believe their fortunes have changed for good.
“We’ve definitely got a lot of momentum,” Simonds said.