Leopards punch ticket to playoffs

La Verne senior running back Travis Sparks-Jackson scores a touchdown in the third quarter against Pomona-Pitzer Saturday at Merritt Field. Defending Sparks-Jackson, offensive linemen senior Grant Potter and freshman Toronny Thomas block the Sagehens’ defensive line, junior Charlie Fries, sophomore Blake Gunn, junior Brian Rauzi and sophomore Evan Lloyd. The Leopards plucked the Sagehens, 49-35, and remain undefeated, clinching their first playoff appearance since 1994./ photo by Sarah Vander Zon
La Verne senior running back Travis Sparks-Jackson scores a touchdown in the third quarter against Pomona-Pitzer Saturday at Merritt Field. Defending Sparks-Jackson, offensive linemen senior Grant Potter and freshman Toronny Thomas block the Sagehens’ defensive line, junior Charlie Fries, sophomore Blake Gunn, junior Brian Rauzi and sophomore Evan Lloyd. The Leopards plucked the Sagehens, 49-35, and remain undefeated, clinching their first playoff appearance since 1994. / photo by Sarah Vander Zon

Chris McMahan
Staff Writer

The Leopards beat the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, 49-35, Saturday at Merritt Field in Claremont to remain undefeated in Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play.

With the win, the team’s sixth consecutive, the Leopards clinch their first playoff appearance since 1994. A victory against Cal Lutheran Saturday, would give them full ownership of the SCIAC championship title, their first since 1995.

“We are really in uncharted territory right now,” head coach Chris Krich said. “We’ve never really been in this situation. This is only the second time this school’s been able to have an opportunity to go to the playoffs.”

La Verne improves its overall record to 7-1 and is 6-0 in SCIAC play. The NCAA will announce the first round seedings and locations 3 p.m. Sunday.

Senior running back Travis Sparks-Jackson said one of the reason this team is in the playoffs is because the team is closer than it has been in previous seasons.

“We have a different culture this year,” Sparks-Jackson said. “We’re trying to change things step-by-step. We have a good senior class really trying to lead us.”

La Verne was up big, 49-14, in the fourth quarter, but three straight scores by Pomona-Pitzer narrowed the deficit.

With 13:16 left in the fourth quarter, Pomona-Pitzer sophomore running back Aseal Birir scored on a 48-yard run to make it 49-21, La Verne.

Birir scored again on a 9-yard run with 7:42 left in the game to close the gap to 49-28.

Pomona-Pitzer sophomore quarterback Taylor Mensik then hit senior receiver Brett Harper with a quick pass over the middle, taking it 95-yards for a touchdown with 4:14 left in the game.

The score was 49-35, La Verne.

On fourth down and two with just three minutes remaining in the game, La Verne’s defense swarmed Birir, who took a direct snap from the center, to force a turnover on downs.

The Leopards’ offense took over and was able to run the clock down to hold on for the win.

The defense might have saved the day for the Leopards, but big plays from the offense helped them jump out to a big lead.

Though having a solid lead, Pomona-Pitzer had three unanswered touchdowns.

“That’s the lesson we have to learn,” Krich said. “We have to make sure to go through and finish a game.”

Sparks-Jackson finished the game with 120 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns.

“He’s a great running back for us and the guy that makes our offense click,” Krich said.

His first score came on the third offensive play of the game.

Sparks-Jackson appeared to be stopped by the defense at the line of scrimmage, but bounced to the left-hand side for a 59-yard touchdown.

“I was just trying to get a first down because it was third and short,” Sparks-Jackson said. “They got me in the backfield, but I kind of shook them off and saw daylight and just hit it and it ended up being a big play.”

This gave La Verne an early 7-0 advantage.

La Verne senior quarterback William Livingston had a big game as well, going nine of 16 for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

He also ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Livingston said the execution could be attributed to the week of practice leading up to the game.

“Coach kind of just gave me the keys just to run the offense the way it is,” Livingston said. “We went over it all week and executed it out here.”

Livingston’s favorite target was junior receiver Alex Arellano, who caught three passes for 29 yards and two touchdowns.

The defense for La Verne gave up 518 yards of total offense, but held the Sagehens to 40 percent (two of five) on fourth-down conversions and had two turnovers returned for touchdowns.

La Verne junior defensive lineman Michael Shepard scooped up a fumble on a lateral by Mensik.

Shepard returned it for 66 yards with 16 seconds left in the first quarter to put La Verne up, 21-0.

Senior linebacker Matt Canlas then continued the defensive barrage when he intercepted Mensik and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown with 10:37 left in the second quarter to make it 35-0, La Verne.

Canlas finished the game with five tackles and an interception. He was later named Leopard of the Week.

The defense did not give up a score until four seconds left in the first half, when Mensik hit senior receiver Brett Harper for a 27-yard touchdown to make the score 35-7 La Verne.

There can be pressure entering the postseason for a team that has only been there one other time, but Livingston said the team is not feeling any at the moment.

“We expected to be here,” Livingston said. “I don’t think there is a ton of pressure on us because we play every game like it’s a championship game.”

Next for La Verne is senior day at 1 p.m. Saturday at Ortmayer Stadium against the Cal Lutheran Kingsmen.

Chris McMahan can be reached at christopher.mcmahan@laverne.edu.

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