Not even a high fever could stop Venice High School junior running back Curtis McNeal from running all over the field against rival Santa Monica High School.
McNeal battled through a high temperature as he picked up four touchdowns to hand Santa Monica its first loss of the year in a 48-23 victory for the host Gondoliers Thursday, September 21st.
The performance topped the Venice running back’s three-touchdown effort a week earlier against Loyola, and helped get his team ready for a mountain of an opponent in nationally-ranked Oaks Christian High School Thursday, September 28th.
“It was hard,” McNeal said of playing with a fever. “I just played through it.”
Even Venice coach Angelo Gasca acknowledged that it was a difficult task to fight off the challenge from Santa Monica (2-1), but the Gondoliers (2-1) came out on top despite some struggles.
“We lost our focus in the second half and gave them some easy scores,” Gasca said. “We were a little flat — except for (McNeal).”
McNeal, who finished with 166 yards on 15 carries, said Venice’s back-to-back victories over quality Loyola and Santa Monica teams shows that the Gondoliers are “coming together.”
Santa Monica faced its first test of the year in Venice, after grabbing commanding victories in its first two games of the season. While the Vikings missed out on some opportunities on offense, Santa Monica coach Zach Cuda said he was proud that his players didn’t give up.
“The kids didn’t quit,” said Cuda, who is in his first season as head coach. “We went into halftime and said we have to keep fighting. We played a good defensive game all along.”
After Venice cruised to a 34-9 lead at halftime, Santa Monica managed to bounce back into the game by capitalizing on two key Venice turnovers in the third quarter.
On the first play of the second half, the Vikings picked up a fumble by Venice junior quarterback Richard Ragland at the Venice 21-yard line.
Five plays later, Viking senior running back Louis Adeyemi, who finished with 25 carries for 181 yards rushing, ran for a five-yard touchdown to cut the Venice lead to 34-15.
Santa Monica then forced another turnover when sophomore Terry Wilson intercepted Ragland and returned the ball to the Venice ten-yard line.
Senior running back David Naylor finished the drive with a nine-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion run by junior quarterback Ryan Katz brought the Vikings to 34-23 at 2:08 in the third quarter.
But Venice put an end to the Viking scoring from there and stretched its lead to 41-23 early in the fourth quarter on a 26-yard touchdown pass by Ragland to junior Jerry Johnson.
The Gondos closed out the scoring late in the final quarter when McNeal intercepted Katz and bolted 65 yards down the field for his fourth touchdown of the night.
While Santa Monica was the first team on the scoreboard with a safety early in the first quarter, Venice took control in the remainder of the first half with five touchdowns.
The Gondos got their first score of the game when junior wide receiver Quesean Gregory caught a nine-yard touchdown pass by Ragland, who finished 13-of-22 for 204 yards passing.
Venice junior Kris Johnson then picked up a fumble in Santa Monica’s ensuing drive and returned it for a touchdown and 14-2 lead.
McNeal then went into overdrive for Venice for the rest of the first half, tallying three touchdowns on runs of 20 and eight yards and a 25-yard reception from Ragland.
Santa Monica didn’t let the Gondos cruise into halftime without adding another score of its own on a 49-yard touchdown run by Adeyemi at 1:52 in the second quarter.
Adeyemi led the running attack that helped Santa Monica compensate for a struggling passing game. Cuda said several “miscues” in the first half allowed Venice to take early command of the game, but he says he knows that his team has “a lot to build on at this point.”
With two tough tests behind them, the Gondoliers must now focus all their attention on the highly anticipated match-up against visiting Oaks Christian — a game that will be televised by ESPN at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 28th.
Oaks Christian, the number-five-ranked team by the Los Angeles Times, has one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Jimmy Clausen, but Gasca said Venice is “not afraid.”
“We’re going to come out and play our rear ends off and see what happens,” Gasca said. “It’s a unique opportunity for us and the community to play that team on this stage.”
McNeal said his team knows to expect a “hard fight to the end,” but they are determined to make it a battle. “We’re ready to play some football with them,” McNeal said.