Instead of letting the frustration with his team’s season-opening loss bring him down, Venice High School junior running back Curtis McNeal used it as motivation against the next opponent, Loyola High School.
McNeal punished the visiting Loyola Cubs (1-1) in the home opener for the Gondoliers Friday, September 15th, racking up three touchdowns to lead Venice (1-1) to a commanding 39-14 victory.
It was the first victory over defending Division I champion Loyola in three years for Venice and it brushed aside any bad feelings from the 30-25 loss to Carson High in the season-opening game September 8th.
“It felt great. This is my first win against Loyola,” said McNeal, who rushed for 279 yards on 13 carries and also had some big blocks on defense.
“Coach (Angelo Gasca) told us to keep playing hard and everything would come through.”
While Gasca said Venice faced a tough loss to Carson in the first game, the Gondos’ convincing win over Loyola has definitely put them “back on track.”
“We feel like we’re born again today,” Gasca said. “There’s no question that this is one of the better wins in our school’s history.”
The win also appears to have answered any questions as to whether the Gondoliers are ready to face such formidable opponents as rival Santa Monica High School and nationally-ranked Oaks Christian High School in their next two games.
“We let everyone know we’re coming for them,” said McNeal, referring to his team’s upcoming opponents.
McNeal, who said he was “just doing my thing” on the field against Loyola, has emerged as Venice’s replacement to last year’s star running back Kenny Ashley.
But Gasca said he was not surprised at McNeal’s standout performance versus the Cubs, which included running for 162 yards in the first half to take Venice to a 26-7 lead.
“We knew (McNeal) is capable of that,” Gasca said. “He’s an incredible football player and we’re lucky to have him.”
McNeal’s long run of 56 yards up the side of the field seemed to be the only highlight in the first quarter, when both teams were scoreless.
The Venice defense kicked off the scoring at the start of the second quarter, when junior Kris Johnson sacked Loyola senior quarterback Conor Hearn and junior Chris Woods returned the fumble ten yards for a Gondo touchdown.
The Cubs responded in their next possession after Hearn, who finished 22-of-47 for 320 yards passing, threw to senior Chris Stanley for a 20-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.
But Venice retook control in a hurry with two one-time plays in its next two drives.
In a trick play, quarterback Richard Ragland pitched to junior Marcus Hill, who passed to senior wide receiver James Hood for a 70-yard touchdown. Two minutes later, McNeal dodged around Loyola defenders as he ran for an 83-yard touchdown to put Venice ahead 20-7 with 1:55 remaining before halftime.
The Gondos closed out the half with another score, after Hill blocked a Loyola field-goal attempt and McNeal returned the football 75 yards for a touchdown and 26-7 lead.
Despite taking command of the game in the first half, Gasca said he knew Loyola was a comeback type of team and Venice could not let up.
“We knew we had to keep playing against Loyola because they don’t quit and they keep playing hard,” Gasca said.
The Gondoliers didn’t give in, as they jumped even further ahead at 33-7 after McNeal’s third touchdown of the night on a 45-yard run at 3:21 in the third quarter.
Loyola managed to respond in its ensuing drive, when Hearn connected with senior wide receiver Chris Conte for a 70-yard touchdown to cut the Venice lead to 33-14.
Ragland, who finished seven-of-ten passing for 106 yards, cemented the Venice victory after a 49-yard touchdown pass to Hood with only 45.7 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Loyola attempted to battle back by passing on nearly every play of the fourth quarter, but the Venice defense halted any scoring, including an interception by Woods at the Venice 37-yard line.
Gasca was pleased with his team’s win over a quality Loyola squad, but he knows Venice “can’t look ahead” to other anticipated battles such as Oaks Christian Thursday, September 28th.
For now, the coach said the Gondoliers must prepare for their next challenge, a rivalry game at home against Santa Monica High School at 7 p.m. Thursday, September 21st.