{Citrus Hill 37 vs. Norco 21 Game Highlights}

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Perris Citrus Hill didn’t win it’s season-opener against Moreno Valley Rancho Verde, but the Hawks came away with a moral victory of sorts: they showed they can play with the “big boys.”

Citrus Hill has averaged more than 12 wins per year and won four CIF-Southern Section championships since 2006, but their success was discounted by those who pointed to tame nonleague schedules, a weak Mountain Pass League, and the fact the titles were won in the lower-tier Eastern and East Valley Divisions.

The Hawks significantly beefed up their nonleague schedule this year, beginning with the opener against Rancho Verde, the top-ranked team in the Inland Division. Citrus Hill demonstrated its could play at Rancho Verde’s level from the get-go, as the Hawks led for chunks of all four quarters and outgained the Mustangs 470-424.

“Our kids played tough,” Citrus Hill coach Eric Zomalt said. “On the road, first game of the season against a great team that’s been to the finals four years in a row, we had some obstacles to overcome and we had our chances. We’ll learn from it and grow from it.”

With the difference in the game just a field goal in the final seconds, the Hawks proved to themselves and others they can hold their own against some of the region’s elite.

“The Citrus kids and coaches were first class,” Rancho Verde coach Pete Duffy said. “They were really good all the way around I thought.”



FOOTBALL: Citrus Hill's Mr. Automatic

The Citrus Hill offense racked up more than 40 points per game last season and torched opposing defenses through the air and on the ground without hesitation or reservation.

But somewhere between the brilliant passing and the power running attack, the Hawks were also developing another offensive force. Maybe Manny Berz’s time on the field wasn’t as highlight-reel spectacular as a long touchdown run or a leaping catch on the sidelines, but the freshman proved he knew how to put the exclamation point on a good drive.

Berz converted 11 of 11 field goals last season, including a school record 47-yarder, and made good on 66 of 67 PATs. If he was on the field, chances are the Hawks were adding points to the scoreboard. On a team loaded with offensive stars, Berz proved automatic.

“It provides a sense of comfort knowing that if we get a good snap, get the ball down, get good protection, the kid is as close to automatic as you’ll find in high school,” coach Eric Zomalt said. “He’s not fazed by any moment.”

Automatic is a good description. Maybe they should call him AB, for Automatic Berz.

But it wasn’t always that way. Like all freshmen, Berz had to prove himself. He’d been kicking since the seventh grade and developed a passion for it. He attended summer camps to improve his craft and typically outperformed older high-school level kickers. Even so, Zomalt said he was cautious when the season started last year so he kept Berz on the sidelines for the first few PATs, not wanting to get the freshman rattled in his first varsity experience.

Berz finally got his chance and was nearly perfect.

The first field goal?

“Forty-three yards, left hashmark, against Arlington,” Berz said with a slight grin.

The one miss all season was a blocked PAT against Ramona. Berz credited the Rams’ defense for the play and didn’t flinch the remainder of the year.

“He’s fine in every situation,” Zomalt said. “He has a cool demeanor, works hard and he’s disciplined.”

It’s that discipline that’s helped lead to success on the field and in the classroom, where Berz sports a 4.0 GPA. He also competed on the Hawks’ swim team last season. He said he might have been nervous at the beginning of last year, but things probably couldn’t have worked out any better.

Not only did Berz prove himself during the season as the Hawks went on to win a CIF-SS Eastern Division title, he kicked this summer at the Kohl’s National Scholarship Invite and is already on the radar of big-name schools such as Princeton, the Naval Academy, UCLA, Stanford and Washington.

Berz has also signed up with Kick-it.org, which raises money for children’s cancer research. People can donate to the site or pledge for every kick that Berz makes.

All in all, it was a pretty frenzied freshman year, but Berz approaches his sophomore year the way he approaches kicking.

“You only get one chance,” he said. “You just have to be focused.”

Contact the writer: asteele@pe.com