MORGAN HILL — Considering how long the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish waited for another crack at Live Oak, one more week wouldn’t hurt that much. When the Irish took the field on Saturday afternoon, they were more than ready.
“It’s been 365 days since they beat us by running the ball, and I’ve broken down more Live Oak film this year than anyone,” said head coach Barry McLaughlin. “Last year’s game kept me up many nights. I’ve woken up at 2, 3 in the morning, heart palpitating, thinking about Live Oak running power left on us.”
That preparedness showed, as Sacred Heart Cathedral shut down one of Northern California’s most prolific offenses, shutting out a team that had averaged 36.5 points and 398 yards per game in a convincing 20-0 shutout victory in the CCS Open Division III Quarterfinals.
Third-seeded Live Oak (8-3) was held to just 197 yards, including only 16 on the ground as the Irish played suffocating defense all night. In fact, 57 of those yards came on the final drive, and the Acorns would have been in the red with their rushing totals if not for a 20-yard run by JV callup Jalen Rios on the final drive. The last play of the night, a pass batted down by Adrian Gonzalez in the end zone to preserve the shutout, was the only play Live Oak would run inside the SHC 35.
“Last year, they came to our home field and really kicked our butts,” said an energetic Anthony Heard, who ran for a game-high 108 yards on 23 carries. “They came into our house, so we wanted to come into their house and whoop their butts exactly how they did.”
It wasn’t exactly how SHC was eliminated last year. In fact, the 20-0 beatdown barely resembled last year’s 28-21 heartbreaker, aside from the strong start to the game from the Irish. This time, Live Oak barely threatened to get back into the game as the WCAL-tested defense quieted the boisterous home crowd that had waited an extra eight days.
A game that was originally slated for kickoff the previous Friday, then Saturday and then Monday was postponed yet again due to poor air quality just after 3:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon when the SHC bus was just 20 minutes away from arriving in Morgan Hill.
“Monday was a little goofy,” said McLaughlin. “When we flipped the buses, the players were mad at me because we didn’t stop at Chick-fil-A.”
Things finally got underway Saturday at the original site, Live Oak’s home field, after one last venue change that morning when the game had been arranged for neutral-site Alisal. It made for poetic justice for the Irish, who defeated the team that had ended their season exactly one year before. The only way it could have been more perfect would have been if the game had been played three hours later to exactly match the kickoff time.
Sacred Heart Cathedral (6-5) marched down the field methodically to start the game, with a 31-yard Heard run for the opening score just two minutes and 22 seconds into the game. Heard was responsible for 62 of his team’s 80 opening-drive yards.
The anticipated shootout wouldn’t come to be, though. Singleton would start the Acorns down the field with a 12-yard pass to Caleb Ojeda and completions of 13 and 10 yards to Matt Blocker, but a holding penalty well behind the line of scrimmage cost Live Oak 17 yards and a sack by David Irwin and Stephen McCarthy led to a punt.
That seemed to set the tone for the night. Even when Singleton would have the makings of a drive, a big penalty or negative play would wipe out any progress. He threw for 172 yards on 16-of-31 passing, but sacks left him with negative rushing yardage despite averaging 90.6 rush yards per game.
A sack by sophomore Benjamin Cervantez would lead to a failed fake punt in the second quarter, and another botched punt would set up SHC to take a 14-0 lead before halftime. Ojeda has the freedom to roam around as punter and can choose to kick the ball away, run or even pass, but the Irish knew exactly what to anticipate. Backed up to their own 14 with 52 seconds left in the half, an aggressive SHC rush forced Ojeda to leave his normal punt position, and he was dragged down at the 2-yard line by Lio Mateo, just shy of a safety. An illegal motion would wipe out a Heard touchdown, but Cian Dowling hit a wide-open Danilo Ruiz for a seven-yard score.
Live Oak would pick up just two first downs in the third quarter, and after the second, a strip sack by 5-foot-5 Evan Dere, the gridiron version of Jose Altuve, was recovered by Spencer Goldfein. It would take just two plays for the Irish to make it a three-score game, with Dowling finding his favorite receiver, LeVar Watkins Jr., for a 22-yard touchdown.
Dowling threw just 12 teams, completing seven of his passes for 97 yards. Five of those completions and 91 of the yards went to Watkins, who managed to excel despite tight coverage all evening. He’ll certainly be faced with a similar situation next week against second-seeded Sacred Heart Prep, which has allowed just two opponents over 20 points all season.
Outside of Singleton, the Acorn offense had little yardage to speak of. Ojeda had five catches for 26 yards and Blocker had three for 34, but the onslaught of sacks and penalties left them scoreless. Sophomore Mosiah Saulala had 60 receiving yards, but just two catches.
“I was just playing it out for our seniors,” said Live Oak junior running back Nick Lomanto, who was held to just 19 yards on six carries but made multiple impressive defensive plays despite noticeably limping throughout the second half. “The bond we have is amazing, and we’ve created a family. This year’s over, and I’ll remember these guys forever, but next year is going to be my season.”
If not for Lomanto and Jared Brindle’s inspired defensive efforts, the final margin could have been far more lopsided.
While the Acorns will have to replace Singleton, they do have a boatload of returning talent between Elijah Fernandez, Jesse Isais, Ojeda, Jalen Rios, Saulala and others.