From top to bottom this weekend, it was a banner moment for the North Coast Section. After all four of its teams playing on Friday night in the CIF North regional bowl games were victorious, Rancho Cotate and Salesian both took the field amid wet and sloppy conditions. Down in Santa Cruz on Saturday night, Salesian held up its end of the bargain as the Pride scored the final 21 points of the game to pull away for a 35-14 victory in the CIF 6-A North regional, punching its ticket to a state title game for the first time in program history.
Combined with Rancho Cotate's victory over Sierra-Manteca, Salesian's win enabled the section to go unbeaten for the weekend, meaning that seven NCS teams will play in CIF title games this coming weekend. It took the Pride until late in the first half to create separation against a stubborn Santa Cruz team on Saturday night, but once Salesian found its stride, it never looked back.
After Santa Cruz tied the game at 14 with 3:11 remaining in the first half, on a broken play and 61-yard scramble from quarterback Dillon Danner followed by a two-point conversion, Salesian asserted its will for the remainder of the evening. The Pride took a 21-14 halftime lead when Kareem Sullivan capped an 80-yard drive to finish the second quarter with his one-yard run into the end zone, and extended the lead on Dominic Fontanilla's five-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"The weather in the first half was amazing to see, with the wind and rain blowing sideways. We really stuck to the ground and did a great job there," said Salesian coach Chad Nightingale. "Defensively, we played great all game, but also give credit to their kids for making some great plays, especially their quarterback. But all night long, we were solid on defense."
Santa Cruz generated some hope with a goal-line stand late in the third quarter, but the Pride dashed those hopes early in the fourth quarter when Kailan Chang took a handoff on a sweep and raced 44 yards for a touchdown and the final points of the night.
"We had a great week of practice, and we've been practicing in the rain for the past couple weeks now, so we have gotten pretty used to it," said Salesian quarterback Ronald Robertson. "We knew that if we did what we do well, we would be good."
Salesian took an early lead in the game when Robertson capped a 10-play, 77-yard drive with his 12-yard scoring run on the second possession of the game, a drive in which the Pride stuck completely to the ground. Santa Cruz responded with an 11-play, 80-yard drive, and Danner found Makai Norman for a 27-yard touchdown pass. Salesian then matched the Cardinals' drive, going 80 yards and reaching the end zone on a five-yard pass from Robertson to Justin Gutierrez for a 14-6 advantage.
"Ronald played a great game leading us, and took what they gave us. The weather dictated a lot of what we did, and our offensive line did a great job," Nightingale added. "All of our backs also did a great job carrying the ball, just an all-around team effort."
Sullivan led all ball carriers with 165 yards on 18 carries, while Robertson added 90 yards on the ground. Salesian outgained Santa Cruz 471-187, with Danner accounting for 61 of Santa Cruz's total yardage with his long scoring run. The Pride rushed for 364 yards in a dominating performance up front, one led by UC Davis commit Princeton Toki.
"The offensive and defensive lines did great and set the tone for the game," Robertson said. "We relied on our o-line to carry us through the game, and they did. Our defensive backs also played a great game. Coming into halftime, we knew we could do much better. We cleaned up our first-half mistakes and dominated in the second half on both sides of the ball."
Salesian will now host Bishop Union for the CIF 6-A title this coming Saturday at noon.