Football: Remembering San Gabriel’s magical run in ’03.

Editor’s Note: San Gabriel’s run up to the 2003 CIF-SS Division VII title game against South Hills was a memorable one. The Star-News takes a look back at the events that led up to the big game.

The setting was intimidating.

San Gabriel High School had never in its then-49-year history won a playoff game prior to 2003. So you can imagine the nerves as the Matadors made their way into The Grand in Long Beach to take part in the CIF-Southern Section press conference and luncheon, where suddenly they stood among some of the elite high school football programs in the Southland.

San Gabriel earned an invitation after making an improbable run to the then-DivisionVII title game against powerhouse South Hills.

Matadors coach Keith Jones was flanked by a delegate of players, among them starting senior wide receiver/cornerback Juan Magallon, who recalled San Gabriel’s run up to the title game like it was yesterday when reached by phone on Wednesday.

“It was intimidating at first,” Magallon recalled walking into the luncheon. “We could tell all these other coaches and players had been there before. But they started talking about how great our team was, and it felt right us being there. Everything we had done we earned the right to be there.”

San Gabriel went unbeaten in nonleague play before an Almont League-opening loss to Schurr. But the Matadors didn’t lose hope, winning three of their next four games to make the playoffs.

Eight years later, San Gabriel finds itself in a similar position as the Matadors (9-4) prepare to take on Monrovia (10-3) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the CIF-SS Mid-Valley Division championship game.

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South Hills, led by a contingent of Division I-bound players, beat San Gabriel 25-6 to win the title in 2003. The Matadors recall a hard-fought game. When Matadors quarterback Frankie Bernard scored on a quarterback sneak, he said “it was the hardest six inches,” and San Gabriel was the only team to score in the playoffs against South Hills, which had dispatched Saddleback (55-0), Gabrielino (22-0) and Orange (21-0).

San Gabriel’s 2003 run is fondly remembered, first for the support and second for the game.

“I remember the attention, the glory we received,” Magallon recalls. “The history that we made got everyone involved. The students, the faculty, the businesses around.”

But there were somber moments.

On Sept. 28, 2003, fullback/linebacker Kevin Harris was shot seven times while trying to break up a fight at a house party in Rosemead. Harris, a senior at the time, was shot once in the chest, four times in his right leg and twice in the left leg. Johnny Anda, Harris’ friend and a senior at San Gabriel, was shot four times and also survived. Harris’ girlfriend, senior Anna Vazquez, was killed by a single gunshot wound.

The assailant was caught three months later and sentenced to life in prison, but a confident team that opened the season 3-0 was shaken to the core.

Harris needed to make a decision: sit out the rest of the season and apply for a hardship or work his way back.

“I never had this sense that I was done,” Harris recalls. “I just felt there was a lot of season to be played.”

Harris fought back, returning in time to play in the regular-season finale against Alhambra.

“If we had lost that game we might not have made the playoffs,” Harris recalls. “I had a decision to make, play one game and if we lose I’m done playing football. I had a feeling we were going to go deep, maybe not a championship, but a lot of games were left, I felt.”

San Gabriel routed Arroyo in the playoff opener 44-10 for its first postseason win in school history. The Matadors then beat La Serna (34-14) and Santa Fe (17-14) to reach the final.

Jude Oliva, now San Gabriel’s head coach, was in his first year as the Matadors’ offensive coordinator, and Don Bernard was in his third year as defensive coordinator. He was the freshman coach when that group of seniors went 8-1-1. Bernard knew something special was in the making.

The spirit around campus and overwhelming support from the entire city of San Gabriel was reminiscent of smalltown USA.

“All eyes were on us, all the attention,” Magallon recalled.

San Gabriel math teacher Theresa Cartwright grew up in Texas and bragged almost daily about what a real atmosphere should be like at high school football games. Naturally, when the Matadors made the finals, it was Cartwright whose spirit burned brightest.

“She really should have been arrested for all she did, writing on windows and all over the place,” said a laughing Jones. “She was the main cheerleader of the football team. You couldn’t contain her, every day bringing treats for the kids.

“During the South Hills game, there was a moment where I turned around and got so mad that the kids were talking to someone from the stands. Well, I take a look and there’s Theresa giving the players star stickers and sticking them on their gloves.”

Cartwright’s enthusiasm resonated across the city, and beyond.

“It was crazy,” Bernard said. “We had guys coming back that had been there from the 60s and 70s wearing their letterman jackets.”

After a brief walkthrough and meetings with position groups the day of the game, San Gabriel boarded its charter buses for Covina District Field. The Matadors intently watched film on the 12 television screens.

It’s no wonder they missed the large banner plastered on the pedestrian bridge just after the New Avenue exit on-ramp going east on the 10 freeway:

“Good luck Matadors”