Despite being undersized and losing several players to injuries throughout the season, the Christopher High football team keeps finding ways to win. The Cougars’ latest example of beating a bigger team came in the Central Coast Section Division III playoff quarterfinals against Palo Alto High on Nov. 12.
Playing at home, No. 4 seed Christopher (6-5) came away with a nail-biting 28-27 win to advance to a semifinal contest at top-seed Leland (9-2) on Friday. Kickoff is 7pm.
“The mentality the whole season has been whether you’re a starter or backup, you’ve got to get it done,” Cougars coach Darren Yafai said. “And our guys are tough kids.”
Christopher had to be mentally and physically tough after No. 5 seed Palo Alto built a 21-7 lead and was threatening to run away with things when it took the second half kickoff and marched down the field to set up a first and goal from the 1-yard line.
But in what was reminiscent of the Seattle Seahawks’ ill-fated attempt to throw the ball instead of giving it to Marshawn Lynch in their Super Bowl 49 loss to the New England Patriots, Palo Alto chose to do the same despite having a big quarterback and running back.
On the very next play, William Rizqallah intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it 59 yards. Two plays later, Spencer Gorgulho hooked up with Jaterius Lee for a 36-yard touchdown to ignite the CHS comeback.
“That was huge. They had a chance to kind of bury us,” Yafai said. “We got lucky. They decided to throw a play-action pass and we had pressure on their quarterback and picked it off in the end zone. The next play, we throw a bomb and all of a sudden the momentum is with us.”
Every team needs an emerging talent to advance in the playoffs. For CHS, that player is Rizqallah, a sophomore strong safety who finished with two interceptions and was a callup to the varsity squad just over a month ago. Rizqallah got pulled up from the junior varsity team because of injuries and all he did was come up with two of the most important plays of the game.
He also intercepted a pass to end Palo Alto’s final drive and seal the outcome. Previous to the playoff game, Rizqallah had played sparingly on special teams and linebacker.
Yafai said Rizqallah came up huge in light of the Cougars losing starting free safety Mikey Cambria on the first series of the game and standout receiver/cornerback Lee to injury late in the third quarter.
“All of a sudden, he is pressed into duty and having to play every down on defense,” Yafai said. “He steps up and gets two amazing interceptions at the most crucial points. Amazing.”
Of course, CHS needed another strong game from its reliable standouts to win, and that came in the form of Rossi Oteri, who blocked Palo Alto’s potential game-tying point-after attempt with 7 minutes, 16 seconds remaining that accounted for the final score of the game.
A huge surge from CHS and Oteri led him bull rushing through the middle and absolutely stuffing the kick—standing up no less—before he sprinted to a CHS sideline that erupted in pandemonium. A standout linebacker, Oteri helped lead a defense that once again bent but didn’t break against a potent offense.
In addition to Rizqallah’s two interceptions, J.T. Thomas and Nick Pham picked off passes. For Pham, it was his fifth interception of the season. Offensively, Yafai said Gorgulho had perhaps his best game of the season, finishing 13 of 20 for 200 yards and four TDs. Gorgulho hooked up with Mason Pena for a 44-yard TD for the first score of the game.
However, Palo Alto scored 21 unanswered points to take a 14-point lead into halftime.
“In the first half, we didn’t have too many answers,” Yafai said. “But we made some adjustments at halftime and got going. It was a wild, crazy and fun game, and one of those games both teams deserved to win.”
Cody Ahola played his most downs since returning from injury four games ago and was a difference-maker.
“He’s a big boy and playmaker, great athlete and tough to tackle, so that was big having Cody play a bigger role on offense,” Yafai said. “Our O-line had one of their better games against a big defensive front. Surprisingly, we were able to run the ball well.”
After an opening-round thriller, CHS looks to chop down another bigger opponent in the semifinals in Leland, the champion of the Blossom Valley League’s Mount Hamilton Division. Appropriately enough, CHS will be moving to the BVAL next year and most likely be placed in the Mount Hamilton alongside Leland.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.