Golden Bears advance to CIF State title game next week
There has been no shortage of excitement this season for the Temecula Valley Golden Bears football program. They have gone from having two back-to-back 0-10 seasons, to making the playoffs last season with a 6-6 record, to beating Vista Murrieta for the first time ever this year, winning the Southwestern League, and now, they are the CIF Southern Section Division 7 champions.
Temecula Valley head coach Bert Esposito, who in his second year with the Golden Bears, has guided them somewhere they hadn’t been in 26 years. The Golden Bears faced Cypress Friday, Nov. 29, at Anaheim Western High School, where they played in their first CIF-SS final since 1993.
For Esposito it’s also been a long time coming. In his very first year as a head coach in 1991, he took Orange Southern California Christian to the finals, beating Santa Ana Calvary Chapel 34-14 in the Division 10 championship game. This past Friday, he made a stellar return after reaching the semifinals with five different teams (Southern California Christian, Linfield Christian, Ramona, Paloma Valley and now Temecula Valley).
“It took a lot of hard work, and a lot of buy-in,” says Esposito. “This program was defeated when I came in. We had to start from the ground up. I looked for leaders on the field and in the classroom. There was a lot of doubt, but we put that to bed quick. When they realized that our whole coaching staff believed in them, they believed in us. They believed they could win.”
Under founding coach Bud Kane, who coached through 2007, Temecula Valley enjoyed early success, winning section titles in 1990 and 1991 and reaching a final in 1993. Upon Kane’s retirement, the Golden Bears football program saw five different head coaches come in over that period. Meanwhile, Vista Murrieta, Chaparral and Murrieta Valley all had great playoff runs, with the Broncos going to seven consecutive CIF-SS championship games, proving themselves as the powerhouse of the area. When Temecula Valley beat the Broncos earlier this season, 20-17, that really changed the way the other teams in the league viewed Esposito’s program.
Enter the 2019 CIF Southern Section Division 7 playoff run, one that was filled with excitement to the very last seconds. In the Division 7 quarterfinals, the Bears stopped an overtime, two-point conversion attempt to defeat Carter 21-20. In last week’s semifinals, quarterback Zach Cutka threw a touchdown pass to Anson Pulsipher with 10 seconds left to give Temecula Valley a 31-28 victory over West Ranch…and in the finals, it was Pulsipher again finding the endzone late in the game.
The Golden Bear running back, who ran for 1,560 yards with 25 touchdowns on 220 carries heading into the game, came up with a huge mid-game fumble recovery for a TD and would hook up with Abe Flores later in the game on a 17-yard touchdown with 41 seconds remaining. That score helped the Golden Bears knock off previously unbeaten Cypress 28-21 in the CIF Southern Section Division 7 championship game.
Flores was having a tough game prior to that throw. The Centurions had to punt the ball away and Flores returned the kick 20 yards, but the ball was punched free and recovered by Cypress. With the help of his teammates picking him up, he had to play through the error on defense and as it turned out, wound up recovering a fumble less than a minute later to give Temecula Valley possession in Cypress territory.
“It definitely was an emotional couple of minutes, but my teammates had my back and did a great job knocking the ball loose. I knew I had to get to it when I saw it on the ground,” Flores said.
“Mistakes are part of the game,” Esposito said. “What matters most is how you bounce back from those, and Abe was ready for that.”
The weather did not cooperate with either team all night as rain led to unruly field conditions and for the Golden Bears, so they knew they had to dig deep. Cypress had not lost all season and was known for their strong running game behind Isaac Hurtado, Orange County’s leading rusher with 2,516 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Temecula Valley (12-2) was ahead all game, taking a 21-7 lead after Brody Hughes scored his second touchdown of the game in the third quarter. Cypress then rallied that same quarter when a 70-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Eldredge connected with Elijah Vaielua. Isaac Hurtado then tied the score at 21 apiece midway through the fourth on a 1-yard run.
The championship is the first for the Temecula Valley football program since 1991, when Morningside forfeited a victory in the title game due to an ineligible player. It also is the first section championship in 28 years for Bert Esposito.
“We worked hard for this,” Pulsipher said. “The love we formed is a bond we will carry forever, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
Temecula Valley’s defense held Hurtado to 108 yards on 29 carries. Brody Hughes led the Golden Bears ground attack with 117 yards on 18 carries.
The Golden Bears will now travel to play in the CIF Division 3AA State Regional championship bowl game Friday, Dec. 6, against El Camino High School. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m. A win there would put Temecula Valley in the CIF Division 3AA State title bowl game against either Cardinal Newman High School (Santa Rosa) or Los Gatos High School. That game would be played Friday, Dec. 14.
J.P. Raineri can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.