Seven days after capturing its first City Section football championship, Venice sought to achieve another first for the program Friday night — victory in a CIF regional bowl game.
The Gondoliers’ valiant comeback attempt came up eight yards short as their season ended with a 19-14 loss to Bakersfield Independence in a CIF Division 5-AA regional at Venice High, but to coach Angelo Gasca, the year was a success.
“We didn’t lose, we just ran out of time,” he said.
Defensive back D’Monte Moten intercepted a pass in the end zone as the clock ran out to seal the victory for Independence.
“We had to drive the whole field with no timeouts and we almost did,” said Gasca, who piloted his alma mater to the City Section Division I championship one week earlier. “Our quarterback, Paul Kessler, came of age tonight. He made some great throws under pressure to get us within range.”
The challenge for Venice (8-4) was containing the Falcons’ 1,700-yard rusher Evan Peaker and 1,100-yard rusher Ladon Denmark and the Gondoliers did that, holding Denmark under 80 yards while Peaker needed 26 carries to gain 125 yards.
Defense dominated in the first half. Robert Lamar powered over the goal line from two yards out to complete a nine-play, 55-yard drive to give Venice a 7-0 lead with 2:50 left in the second quarter.
Independence (9-6) answered on its ensuing drive, marching 64 yards in seven plays, scoring on Denmark’s 12-yard quarterback keeper to pull even just before halftime.
Three plays after Rashawn Jackson was tackled for a loss on a fake punt at the Gondoliers’ five-yard line, Denmark ran for his second score to give the Falcons their first lead, but the extra point was blocked. Denmark then scored on an 11-yard draw to give Independence a 19-7 lead.
Kessler connected with Jamier Flowers on a 57-yard scoring pass to cut the Gondoliers’ deficit to 19-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Venice forced a punt on the Falcons’ next drive and took over at its own 28, but Moten picked off an underthrown pass at the Independence 35. Venice held and took over at its own three with 3:06 left.
Venice needed 10 plays to reach the Independence eight before Kessler got the snap with three seconds left. Moten’s second interception allowed the Central Section Division IV champions to advance to the 5-AA state bowl championship game next Saturday versus North Coast Section Division 5 champion Novato San Marin (13-1).
Without 12 players because of the coronavirus, Venice dropped three of its first four games. Since returning to full strength, the Gondoliers had reeled off seven straight wins.
“We overcame so much this season and I’m really proud of the seniors,” Gasca said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.