Redlands East Valley's Isaiah Holiness is stopped for almost no gain early in the first quarter of his team's CIF playoff game against La Habra. (MICHAEL KITADA, CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER)

La Habra rides its defense to semifinals


LA HABRA – Long is the list of similarities between La Habra coach Frank Mazzotta and Redlands East Valley coach Kurt Bruich.

They are sons of renowned football savants, downtrodden program saviors, league and CIF titlists, faces of Southern California football institutions.

La Habra has been an Orange County power since Mazzotta’s 1998 debut. Bruich’s 15 seasons at Redlands East Valley have brought similar success.

On Friday, the two stood on opposite sidelines, their teams battling for the right to practice during Thanksgiving week.

The Highlanders advanced to the Division 2 semifinals with a 31-21 home win. They’ll host Murrieta Valley on Friday.

“These kids like winning,” Mazzotta said. “These kids want to continue being together. It’s the playoffs. It’s win or it’s over.”

One week after holding Oaks Christian’s prolific offense well below its season averages, La Habra’s defense stifled record-breaking Redlands East Valley quarterback Armando Herrera and the Wildcats’ attack.

Mazzotta’s defensive backs held up in coverage and his defensive linemen pressured Herrera into short throws.

La Habra’s defense coaxed an offense averaging more than 36 points a game into uncharacteristic mistakes. In the third quarter, Alan Giron returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown, and Marcus Carrasco blocked a field goal attempt. Isaiah Alcocer later ended another promising Redlands East Valley drive with an interception.

Redlands East Valley (9-3) hadn’t scored 21 or fewer points in a game since Sept. 16.

“The kids played hard,” Mazzotta said.

La Habra quarterback Zach Fogel threw for 169 yards, connecting with Pervis Henderson and Derrick Corso for scores. Henderson took a receiver screen 70 yards for the game’s opening touchdown and the Highlanders (8-4) never trailed.

“I have to give so much credit to our coaches,” Fogel said. “Our game plans the past two games have been absolutely excellent. We’re always ready for what the defense throws us. That’s how we got off to an early start.”

Running back Madison Wheeler rushed for 107 yards.

“My offensive line was opening holes the whole game,” he said. “We came out with a purpose.”

Redlands East Valley receiver Isaiah Holiness scored on a 17-yard catch in the first quarter. Billy Bowens had 133 receiving yards and a touchdown. Herrera finished with 330 passing yards.

The Wildcats (9-3) last played an Orange County team in 2013. Last year’s team also lost in the CIF-SS quarterfinals.

“This is my favorite time of year,” Fogel said. “Not just because it’s a playoff atmosphere, but I love to compete at the highest level. Playing in November, it’s a La Habra tradition.”

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