SAN FRANCISCO — A boisterous crowd roared under the historic Kezar Stadium lights on a cold Saturday night. Their Fightin’ Irish had just made history.
With a 48-29 victory over Northview in the CIF 4-A state championship game, Sacred Heart Cathedral claimed its first CIF title in football in school history.
“I’m just enjoying the scene,” Head coach Barry McLaughlin said, drenched in the celebratory ice water his team dumped on him after the win. “Great for the city, great for Sacred Heart Cathedral. I’m going to enjoy it right now. It’ll hit me at some point.”
At points this season, the new state champions weren’t enjoying the moment. They started the season 0-5, a better team on the field than their record showed on paper as close losses piled up. The Irish felt the winds change in wins against Bellarmine and against bitter rival St. Ignatius.
“After the Bruce-Mahoney we got back-to-back wins and clicked in as a team and started winning,” said running back and middle linebacker Jerry Mixon Jr.
At points on Saturday, the Irish couldn’t get out of their own way. A storm of penalties clouded the game; Sacred Heart incurred a whopping 98 yards worth of penalties in the first half, including a personal foul by the SH bench called on McClaughlin for interfering with the officials. A call that brought back wide receiver Bruce Uperesa’s back-breaking 72-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that could have opened the flood gates early.
“They made a mistake in the ruling,” McClaughlin said. “I almost got kicked out in the first half and I didn’t do anything, but — at one point (this season) we had 10 touchdowns called back, so we’re used to having big plays called back. We just keep rolling with it.”
The Fightin’ Irish navigated the flying yellow flags just fine, answering Northview’s early lead on Ronal Tebo Jr.’s 70-yard carry and one-yard touchdown punch with SH senior Bruce Uperesa’s 55-yard touchdown run to make it 6-6 to start.
Quarterback Ray-John Spears was full of big throws Saturday, including back-to-back touchdown passes to RJ Miller. One a 46-yard touchdown reception, the other 35 yards to give Sacred Heart a 20-6 lead.
With a bit of penalty help, Northview executed two scoring plays on an 11-yard touchdown reception by Erik Saiz and 49-yard touchdown reception by Tebo to make it 20-20. With the half winding down, Spears kept a late drive alive with a risky Russell Wilson-esque scramble and completion to Aiden Shea over the middle for the third down conversion, punctuated with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Keishk and 35-yard extra point kick by Brian Coyle (after penalty) that gave Sacred Heart the 27-20 lead at half.
“That’s what put us over the hump, is their ability to make a play at all times,” McClaughlin said. “No matter the down or distance, lot of stress on their defense.”
The Vikings and the Irish traded touchdowns to start the second half; Sacred Heart on Uperesa’s 51-yard reception and Northview on Saiz’s 47-yard rushing touchdown to make it 34-26 mid-way through the third.
With a pass interference and facemask call against Sacred Heart, Northview was nearly threatening the lead until the Vikings incurred a penalty of their own on fourth down at the goal line, forcing them to kick a field goal.
“The defense was stopping them constantly,” said Keishk. “It made a difference.”
Though the Fightin’ Irish appeared to put the game away with a 17-yard play action touchdown pass to Miller with six minutes left in the game — making it 41-29 — the Vikings found life on a fourth-down penalty in Sacred Heart territory. After yet another penalty, the Vikings faced 4th down and 11 with their season ticking away.
Quarterback James Arellanes hurled it to the receiver on the sideline, but linebacker Mixon had already sniffed the play out.
“The first time they ran the same play, then I saw the coordinator call the same play so I just read it and jumped,” Mixon said.
Mixon intercepted it for a game-clinching pick six. His team running down the sideline along with him. They’d made Sacred Heart history.
Spears went 15-for-22 in the passing game for 300 yards and five touchdown passes. Miller collected 108 yards and three touchdowns on an efficient four receptions. Uperesa caught four passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
For Northview, running back Cheo Medina — who came into the game with 1,876 yards and 18 touchdowns on the year — took on the lion’s share of carries, but only collected 45 yards on 18 carries, though he had 89 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown.