SUNNYVALE, Calif. — Fourth downs were everything in Friday night’s CIF Northern California 5-AA Championship.
The teams combined to convert just one of the nine fourth-down conversions on the night, but the one that Del Norte was able to convert on led to the one sustained scoring drive of the night, and two of the four that the Warriors were able to stop set up their other scores in a rain-soaked 21-14 win over King’s Academy to advance to a state championship game for the first time in program history.
“When those plays come up, we rise to the occasion,” first-year head coach Nick White said. “That’s what a championship team does.”
On a night where only one scoring drive covered more than 50 yards, Levi Cox-Cooley’s 43-yard burst on a fourth-and-1 in the second quarter stood out as the biggest offensive play of the night, setting up a touchdown to give Del Norte (13-1) a 14-7 halftime lead, but it was the last of those four fourth-down stops that was the most memorable, an incompletion with 2:41 left that gave the ball back to the Warriors. Unable to run the ball at all, the host Knights were forced to turn to the air, and hampered by the wet conditions that turned from a light rain in the first half to a full-on downpour for much of the third and fourth quarters, quarterback Antonio Gonzalez managed to complete just 10 of 25 passes.
“If it’s a nice day with no rain, I think we could have thrown the ball better,” King’s Academy head coach Pete Lavorato said. “I’m usually happy when it’s raining because we’re a running team, but I knew this might not be a good thing for us because they’re big and physical.”
The elements fit the Warriors perfectly as they managed to hold the hosts to a season-low 36 rushing yards, with 33 coming on a pair of Gonzalez scrambles. Cox-Cooley singlehandedly outgained the Knights, with 168 yards on 31 carries while playing an active role on a defense that allowed just 136.
King’s Academy (10-4) tied the game with 2:39 left in the third as a fumble set up a 20-yard Gonzalez touchdown pass to Zach Paszkeicz, and the Knights had the ball again after a third straight Del Norte possession ended without a first down, in position to take the lead for the first time all night.
That’s when Cox-Cooley answered the call yet again. He managed to corral Noah Short in the backfield for a five-yard loss, giving the Warriors the ball at the TKA 43. He then carried three straight times to take the visitors to the brink of the red zone, and fullback Kobe Mitchell’s 20-yard run set up quarterback OJ Calleja’s second one-yard touchdown of the night, putting Del Norte back in front with 7:40 left. After a 22-yard Gonzalez scramble, Mitchell was positioned perfectly to intercept a screen pass, and after the Warriors ran off nearly four minutes before giving the ball back on downs, it was the pass defense’s time to shine.
Del Norte had loaded the box all night with nine defenders, but with King’s Academy forced to turn to the air, the secondary came up huge with NCS title game hero Chase Blackburn and Nick Freeman breaking up a pass on third down. Gonzalez’s pass for Zach Lewman on fourth down went just out of his receiver’s reach, giving the ball back to the visitors on the brink of victory. The Knights would get it back with just 15 seconds left, and an RJ Loftin pass breakup and Freeman interception on the final play of the game sealed the victory.
“We were ready to go to war,” defensive end Kai Baugh said.
Baugh’s explosive tackle on the first fourth-down attempt of the game set up the Warriors’ opening touchdown, punishing the Knights for going for a fourth-and-4 at their own 13 by crushing Short in the backfield. That set up Calleja’s first touchdown, and Lavorato clearly took notice of the defense his team was facing. On the next possession, the Knights punted in Del Norte territory after Blackburn blew up a screen pass, but a Daniel Turner fumble recovery would set the hosts up to tie the game on a 10-yard touchdown from Gonzalez to Kevin Sielski.
On the following possession, the Warriors faced fourth-and-1 at their own 44, and the offense stayed on the field. Cox-Cooley found a hole up the middle, and with a huge block from tight end Conner Long in the secondary, he was free to dash up the sideline. Alex Smith finally tracked him down, but Cox-Cooley took the ball again on the next play and covered the remaining nine yards to take the lead. Another fourth-down stop by the Warrior defense would ensure them the lead at halftime, and they’d hold it in the third until Kevin Huang’s fumble recovery set up the Gonzalez-to-Paszkeicz score.
Huang was one of two sophomores starting on the line for a Knights team that boasts tons of youth. Short, Gonzalez and defensive end Siupeli Netane are all juniors and look to factor in next year for a team that has room to grow even farther after winning back-to-back CCS championships. Returning to a NorCal championship and beyond is already on the horizon for the underclassmen, and they plan to do so with the outgoing seniors in mind.
“We want to bring it back for the seniors go to state and win it for them,” said Netane, who was welcomed into the program with open arms after transferring from Carlmont. “They brought me in, whether it’s carpool rides or going out for lunch on Saturday.”
The Knights will have a whole offseason to figure out how to do that, though nine of their players will be joining the school’s basketball team.
On the other hand, next year is as far as possible from the minds of anyone in Crescent City. After their most disciplined game of the year, in which they went until the final minute of the game before finally being called for a penalty, the Warriors will host El Monte in next week’s state championship game.
“We played with controlled aggression,” Baugh said. “We worked on not holding and not being so aggressive after the whistle.”
The teams combined for just three flags all game as White was able to win a NorCal title over a team from the same league that stopped his brother’s Eureka team from doing so last year. Jason’s Loggers were taken down by Menlo-Atherton, 27-20, in a Division 3-AA thriller in which the victorious Bears had a long but happy bus ride home. The Warriors’ trip is an even longer one, as their home is closer to the Oregon border than Eureka, but it’s a happy ride home that they’ll be making with a NorCal trophy in hand.