Having suffered a stinging overtime loss in the school’s first playoff game in 21 years, the Indio Rajahs were left to try and find the positives from a season that slipped away from them in just a few moments Friday night.
“I can look back and say that I am proud of the way we did during league, but there are so many things that we could have done the entire season that it just fills me with regret,” senior quarterback Fabian Garcia said after the Rajahs fell 22-21 to Montebello in a first-round CIF-Southern Section Division 12 playoff game at Ed White Stadium.
“Ultimately, I am so proud of every single person that has come to play for this program and those associated with it,” Garcia added. “I have the utmost love for anyone who has stepped on the field with me as a teammate and a coach.”
It was Garcia who seemed to put the game away for Indio in the fourth quarter, scoring on a 61-year read-option play where he outraced the Montebello defense, giving Indio a 15-7 lead with just 1:10 remaining.
But the Indio defense that held Montebello to a single touchdown early in the second quarter suddenly gave up chunks of yards on short passes to the sidelines. With just 33 seconds left, the Oilers scored when quarterback Michael Valdivia found receiver Anthony Patel behind the Rajahs defense for a 46-yard score. Raul Gonzalez ran in a two-point conversion that sent the game to overtime.
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In the overtime, the Rajahs took the ball first from the 25-yard line and scored in just four plays, the final nine yards on a Dominick Moran run. The Rajahs then missed their third extra point of the night to lead just 21-15.
Montebello needed just two plays to score after starting from the 25-yard line, with the touchdown coming on a 13-yard run by Gonzalez. When the extra-point attempt flew through the uprights, the Oilers had the win and Indio’s season ended at 5-5 overall. Montebello is now 6-5 for the year.
While the game was competitive throughout, the Rajahs had chances to build a cushion. At the end of the second quarter and again at the start of the third quarter, the Rajahs had first downs inside the Montebello 10-yard line only to walk away with no points, giving the ball up on downs both times.
Indio also fumbled the ball five times, losing possession twice, and had chances for several interceptions that slipped through Rajahs defenders’ hands.
Garcia finished the night with 93 rushing yards on seven carries, including the 61-yard score late in the game. Moran compiled 139 yards on 30 carries, including the overtime touchdown.
Montebello’s Gonzalez had just 73 yards on 12 carries, but that included scores of 48 and 13 yards.
There were far too many critical points in the game to choose just one, but when the Montebello defense held the Rajahs out of the end zone at the end of the second quarter with the Rajahs having a first-and-goal at the 7, it gave the Oilers a 7-6 halftime lead and stopped Indio from gaining momentum.
Indio ran four plays, two rushes, another rush attempt that featured a fumbled handoff, and then a Garcia pass to the corner of the end zone that was slapped away by a Montebello defender.
Both Indio head coach Daniel Hayes and Garcia said the Rajahs had no letdown after giving up the late touchdown that forced the game into overtime.
“I always feel like we are going to win, “Hayes said. “I have confidence in myself, I have confidence in the coaching staff, I have confidence in the players. I knew when we won the toss, I honestly felt in my heart we were going to go down and score and we were going to win the game.”
The loss was a bittersweet end to the season for Garcia and the other seniors on the Indio roster.
“I just can’t fathom not being on this team. This has brought me so many memories. On that last drive, I had the utmost confidence we were going to score. There was no doubt in my mind we were going to be able to punch it in.”
Everyone with the Rajahs team seemed dazed and frustrated by the loss, especially having led much of the second half and having Garcia seemingly put the game away with the late touchdown. Tears and tossed helmets were common after the final horn. But the team did do something in making the playoffs for the first time since 2001, and the last two years have seen Indio field competitive football teams after more than a decade of scratching out only a win or two a year. Keeping that program on the rise will be the challenge with key players leaving the team as seniors.