DANA POINT – It was a stunning moment, one in which Christian Tober turned around a game with a gutsy move and blurring speed.
Tober's 69-yard punt return in the third quarter paved the way for San Clemente to post a crucial 42-28 victory over host Dana Hills. It ruined the Dolphins' homecoming, and didn't do much for their playoff chances either. The Dolphins (3-5, 0-2) now need to win out against Tesoro and Trabuco Hills to get one of three guaranteed playoff berths from the South Coast League.
It was just the opposite for San Clemente (7-1, 2-0); two victories – including one against a playoff contender such as Dana Hills – should be enough to get into the playoffs. Next week, the Tritons take on undefeated defending league champion Mission Viejo (7-0, 1-0) with plenty of confidence. Last week Mission beat Dana Hills, 52-26.
San Clemente's scoring drives were 73, 29, 51, 48, 20 and 48 yards.
San Clemente got a big defensive effort in the second half, but it was Tober's return that was the monster play.
The score was tied at 28-28 after a remarkable first half in which San Clemente fell behind, 21-7, but got back into the game by taking advantage of a short field. Dana Hills had to punt on its first possession of the second half, and though Chris Kearney booted a 50-yard punt, Tober's 69-yard return – to the 20-yard line – was the flashpoint necessary to complete the comeback.
“That killed us,” said Dana Hills coach Brent Melbon of Tober's return. “We had the kid pinned in with three guys and he split two of them.”
Tober's aggressive play in which he ran back to catch the ball turned nothing into something.
“It was a deep punt and I didn't really think I was going to get anything out of it, but I thought why not, we're playing Dana, it's a rivalry game,” said the junior cornerback. “I took it, got a block from Conner Stuart on the wing, couple of good blocks, one from Sam Lacebol . . . I just took a chance, caught it and went. It's all kind of blurry.”
Nick Pasquale gained 18 of the next 20 yards, the last 10 that gave San Clemente a 35-28 lead with 7:37 left in the quarter.
“It really sparked us,” San Clemente coach Eric Patton said of the return. “That punt and the kick return.”
The kick return was Terrell Johnson's 70-yard return to the Dolphin 29-yard line. Trent Mason, who had scored on runs of one, 44 and three yards, had given Dana Hills a 21-7 lead just 13 minutes into the game. The kickoff led to Mike Elespuru's 10-yard score, and after after the defense forced another punt, Elespuru capped a 51-yard drive with a two-yard carry. The big play was a 32-yard pass from Travis Wilson to Johnson.
San Clemente took a 28-21 lead after Herbert Gamboa's interception at the DH 48-yard line that led to Elespuru's third touchdown, from one yard.
Dana Hills took back the momentum with a touchdown 19 seconds before halftime, Kearney's one-yard run.
But then came Tober's return in the second half, and the big performance by the defense. Lacebol had two of four sacks, three of which came in the second half, to give San Clemente a night to remember.
“It felt great, especially since it's against Dana and we don't really like them too much,” Tober said.
“We came together tonight. We're really playing as a team now. I really think we're going to be ready for Mission next week.