A year ago, La Quinta running back Chris Toribio – or “Turbo,” as he was nicknamed – would take the ball from quarterback Michael Avina in the backfield, hit a hole and be gone. Toribio had backed up Vincent Guzman the season before as a junior, but as soon as his season began – similarly to how he took handoffs – Toribio hit the ground running, nearly piling up 3,000 rushing yards to go with 49 touchdowns.
This season, a different style of running back has led the Blackhawks to the semifinals to face Oak Hills in the CIF Southern Section Eastern Division playoffs, one without the jaw-dropping speed who takes a bit more time to make his move and his mark on the valley.
Benji Cordova amassed less than 90 yards on the ground five games into this season, while battling through a hamstring injury and a hyper-extended elbow, making it next-to-impossible, at times, for him to take a handoff and hold onto the ball with his bulky brace.
As a junior making his first few starts ever at the varsity level, Cordova was up against the defensive front sevens of teams like Heritage and Villa Park filled with hulking figures owning a handful of Division 1 scholarship offers.
But his patience and persistence is what has made his run of 1,005 yards in five games all the more special while leading the way on La Quinta’s playoff run.
“When we played those bigger teams, it made us tougher. It made us smarter,” Cordova said.
“He’s not the vocal leader you’d think he would be, but he leads by example,” La Quinta coach Dan Armstrong said. “Guys see how he works, how he practices, how he’s there every day, his elbow swollen and discolored. It’s easy to see he’s got an injury, but our players see what he does, the way he plays, and they want to emulate that.”
Even with his increased workload, Cordova rarely gets a chance to catch his breath. He’s a staple on the Blackhawk defense at middle linebacker, impacting every single play while taking hits and dealing them out just the same.
The only time he does take a quick break is after a score on special teams – lately, after a long sprint into the end zone. He’s scored 10 times on the ground over the past five games, including a five-touchdown game a week ago against Burroughs in the quarterfinals.
Sure, Toribio could sometimes carry the ball 30 or 40 times a game, Armstrong said, but even he didn’t have to go through the rigors Cordova faces on defense.
“He’s a tough kid,” senior lineman Robbie Polimeni said. “At this point, he knows he’s tough. He knows how to get through anything. … Now, we don’t accept anything less than Benji scoring five touchdowns a game because we know he can do that, and Benji knows that, too.”
“He just likes to play football,” Armstrong said. “He’s beat up, I mean really beat up, but every day, he comes out here and I ask him, ‘How are you doing?’ and he says, ‘I’m fine.’ He’s a tough kid.”
Last year, Armstrong at times had to set Toribio farther and farther back in the backfield because, with his speed, Toribio would run up behind his linemen at times before the blocks were even ready. Once they were, he was often gone, with no hope of being caught.
“It was so easy as a lineman ’cause we put a block on for half a second or a second, and all the sudden, Turbo is off for 80-yard runs like nothing,” Polimeni said. “We didn’t have to be conditioned ’cause he would score so many points, we’d be able to cruise by halftime.”
But this season and this team has been entirely different. Cordova finally started turning heads after ripping off 332 yards against Coachella Valley in the team’s ninth game of the season. Armstrong said the offensive line wasn’t truly in sync until their first playoff game against Norte Vista.
Last season, the Blackhawks were the kings of the valley, out in front of everyone with no hope to be touched, until the semifinals game against Serrano arrived. Then, they were out in a flash.
This November, playing the underdog card, gaining steam while Cordova continues to get more comfortable in the backfield, the Blackhawks’ momentum will be tough to stop.
“The majority of us stayed together this year and did what we had to do, just waited for the right time, and the right time came,” Polimeni said. “We’re not a team that’s going to get down in the first quarter and just quit. We’ve been in adverse situations when things are tough, and we’ve stayed together as a family.”
Armstrong said that Toribio hit open holes faster than anyone he’s seen, but Cordova’s skills set him apart, too.
“Benji has a lot more vision. He has cut-back ability that Chris didn’t have,” he said. “He gains yards in ways Chris didn’t.”
But as he showed against Burroughs, when Cordova finds his seam, he’s tough to keep up with. Armstrong said he thinks this team can go as far as starting quarterback Michael Avina and Cordova can take them this postseason.
When Cordova takes the ball Friday against visiting Oak Hills, only one thing will be on his mind.
“Don’t get caught.”
WHAT TO EXPECT
Oak Hills (7-5) at La Quinta (6-6): Just a week ago, the Bulldogs laid a punishing defeat to previously undefeated Palm Springs and demanding La Quinta’s full attention. The Indians’ defense struggled with Oak Hills’ constant sweep around either end on the ground, and the Bulldogs had plenty of speed to combat Palm Springs’ athleticism. La Quinta has proven they can come from behind, as they did against Norte Vista two weeks ago. Still, Benji Cordova will need to get out to a similarly solid start on the ground to help open up the play-action pass that quarterback Michael Avina had success with. This team will only go as far as that duo can take them.