The Venice High School Gondoliers got off to a forceful start in the Los Angeles City Section Championship Division playoffs with a 55-7 first-round blowout of the visiting Banning High School Pilots Thursday, November 16th.

But Venice coach Angelo Gasca said the performance was merely the first step in the Gondoliers’ path to the top of Los Angeles City football.

“This is the first step,” Venice coach Angelo Gasca said of the first-round victory, adding that the Gondos will “take the second step” against their next opponent, San Pedro High School. “We’re going to try to sustain our momentum and carry it into the next game.”

Venice (9-2) continued its successful run after capturing the Western League title outright and proved its number-three playoff seed with the decisive win over the 14th-seeded Pilots (4-7).

The victory sets Venice up for a second-round showdown at home with sixth-seeded San Pedro High School at 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 22nd.

In the game against Banning, junior quarterback Richard Ragland led the way for Venice, completing 15 of 21 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. He also added a fourth running touchdown in the third quarter.

“We showed everyone else that we can play with the Marine League teams,” Ragland said.

Fellow offensive leader and junior running back Curtis McNeal also stepped up with 12 carries for 91 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and had a couple of big plays on defense, including an interception at the start of the second half.

Ragland has thrown for nearly 2,300 yards this season, while McNeal has rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and 39 touchdowns.

Coach Gasca “always says to relax, stay focused and have fun, and that’s what I did,” Ragland said of his playoff performance against Banning.

It was Venice’s second defeat of Banning this season, although this time the outcome was much more one-sided than the 39-20 non-league victory October 6th.

While the Gondos were confident that they could repeat as winners over Banning, Gasca said the dominating victory was not expected as much.

“We hoped for it,” he said. “We knew we had to get the game early and create momentum for ourselves.”

Venice did take control of the game early and jumped out to a 20-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.

After scoring in each of its five offensive drives of the first half, Venice was already in command at halftime with a 34-7 lead.

Ragland opened the game with a 25-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage to McNeal, who capped the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.

In Venice’s next possession, Ragland found junior Jerry Johnson for a long 63-yard touchdown reception to take a 13-0 lead in the middle of the first quarter.

Banning then failed to convert a fourth-down play and Venice capitalized on it immediately when Ragland again passed to Johnson, who made a tough grab to score a 52-yard touchdown.

“It felt good,” Johnson said of his second touchdown catch. “I was like, ‘I gotta catch this ball.'”

Following a 51-yard pass by Ragland to senior James Hood at the end of the first quarter, Venice began the second quarter with another score on a three-yard run by junior Kris Johnson.

McNeal then added his second touchdown of the night on a three-yard run, giving Venice a 34-0 lead before Banning was able to put its first points on the scoreboard.

After struggling on offense throughout most of the first half, the Pilots picked up their only score of the game when junior quarterback Anthony Rodriguez threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to senior Donovan Sala with three minutes remaining before halftime.

Rodriguez finished 13-of-25 passing for 164 yards for Banning.

Banning got another late chance when it recovered a fumble by McNeal, but the Pilots could not find the end zone before time expired in the first half.

It was the last solid opportunity Banning would have, as Venice made the second half its own with three more touchdowns and cruised into the playoff second round.

In the first play from scrimmage after halftime, McNeal showed his defensive skills by intercepting a Rodriguez pass and returning it to the Banning 29-yard line.

A few plays later, Ragland targeted junior Quesean Gregory for a 40-yard touchdown pass to give the Gondos a 41-7 lead.

But the Venice quarterback was still not done for the night, as he scrambled 74 yards late in the third quarter to add one more score.

Banning found no way to answer against the Venice defense in the second half, while the Gondos did not let up and finished their scoring with a four-yard touchdown run by sophomore Leonard McConico late in the fourth quarter.

While the Gondos took care of a rather easy test in the first round, they are sure to face a challenge with the San Pedro Pirates, who are one of the top teams in the South Bay.

“I think we are one of the better teams in the city and we’re trying to prove it,” Gasca said. “This is the first part of proving it.”