VALENCIA — Elijah Gipson started out talking about himself, but it really summed up the entire Oaks Christian School football team.
"I learned this season that it's not how big you are, but how hard you play," said the senior defensive back/wide receiver. "I'm not the biggest guy around, but the most important thing is how much heart you have. Heart is always the most important thing."
Oaks Christian rallied from an 0-5 start on the season, weathered a dubious injury wave in postseason, but still advanced to the championship game of the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 playoffs.
In the end, the Lions' quest for a ninth Southern Section crown fell one victory short. Tied at 7-7 at halftime of the matchup with host Valencia High, Oaks Christian was undone by a series of big plays in the second half and fell, 28-14, on the championship stage Friday night.
Cole Tannenbaum threw for 185 yards and accounted for two touchdowns and Johnny Thompson rushed for 123 yards, but it wasn't enough for the Lions to finish off their postseason quest.
Valencia's Ray Hall returned the second-half kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown, the Vikings turned an interception on Oaks Christian's subsequent possession into a 3-yard scoring run and a two-touchdown lead and the Lions couldn't pull off a comeback.
Tannenbaum's 35-yard scoring pass to Gibson with 5:19 left in the third quarter — set up by a 24-yard completion to Joseph Marsh on fourth-and-two — seemingly swung the momentum.
Instead, Valencia's defense held firm thereafter and a 10-yard scoring run by Giorgio Spiropoulos midway through the fourth quarter proved to be decisive.
Oaks Christian head coach Charles Collins said there was no sadness for his team at game's end, only pride.
"Everything we've talked about with our guys this week, is what they've shown this season," he said. "There's grace, faith and trust and they've demonstrated all of that. I couldn't be more proud of these guys. What I will remember most about this team is the resiliency.
"Nobody outside this group thought we could make it this far. But these players never stopped battling and they never stopped trusting in each other."
"We started out 0-5, which is never good, but we never quit," he said. "We learned how special we can be when we pull together as a team. We always believed in ourselves."
Marsh, a two-way junior standout at linebacker and wide receiver, echoed those sentiments.
"I'll remember this team as one that never gave up," he said. "We had the rough start, but we kept playing hard. We did so many good things. I'm looking forward to getting ready for next season."
The game started like the offenses would dominate.
Oaks Christian took the opening kickoff and marched 82 yards in 13 plays for a 7-0 lead. Thompson accounted for 52 yards on seven carries, and Tannenbaum finished off the drive with a 1-yard scoring sneak.
Valencia countered with a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive and a 7-7 tie. Hall's 16-yard scoring run on an end-around came with 2:23 left in the first quarter.
Then the defenses dug in.
The only scoring threat for the rest of the first half came from Oaks Christian, which marched to the 13-yard line with under 1:30 remaining. But Aiden Fintoft's try at a 25-yard field goal on fourth down was blocked and the play turned out be a precursor of a turning point by the Vikings' special teams.
Hall's 99-yard kickoff return at the top of the third quarter gave Valencia a lead it would not relinquish.
Trailing 21-7 in the third period, Oaks Christian squeezed close on back-to-back clutch plays.
Tannenbaum found Vance running open for a 24-yard gain on fourth-and-2. Gipson turned a deflection from a Vikings defensive back into a 35-yard touchdown one play later.
"I'm really a defensive back, so that was different for me," Gipson said with smile. "I know we needed a big play and I was happy to do it for the team."
Marsh thought the game had turned.
"I really thought we were going to win the game after that," he said.
Instead, Oaks Christian couldn't sustain a drive thereafter. Two fourth-down attempts came up shy and the Lions were forced to turn the ball over on downs. The latter came on fourth-and-2 with under three minutes remaining and sealed the verdict.
Valencia, meanwhile, had turned a short field into a 44-yard scoring drive and a 28-14 lead with under eight minutes remaining. Spiropoulos' 10-yard scoring run came on first-and-goal.
"They used a lot of motion, which threw us off," Marsh said. "We just made a few mistakes."
Already missing Jalen Lewis and Isaiah Green to injuries, the Lions' receiving corps saw Justice Williams limp in and out of the game in the second half.
"The injuries might have caught up to us, particularly with our receivers," said Collins.
Oaks Christian finishes the season at 7-7. Valencia improves to 8-4.
The game marked the second title-game matchup between the Lions and Vikings in four seasons. Oaks Christian won the Division 2 championship at Valencia in 2017, 20-19. The win Friday night clinched Valencia's first CIF football title.
Loren Ledin is the Prep Editor for The Star. He can be reached at email@example.com or 805-437-0285.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Oaks Christian's quest for CIF-SS title falls short at Valencia