With the season just a few months away, longtime Christopher High football coach Tim Pierleoni departed in June 2021.
School officials had to convince a reluctant Darren Yafai to jump onboard.
The experienced skipper agreed to help out and the decision turned into a spectacular three-year run to the top for the Cougars, a landmark accomplishment in the program’s history.
Yafai led Christopher on a magical Central Coast Section playoff run in 2023, including upsets of powerful Archbishop Mitty and Menlo School, both with amazing late-game comebacks.
However, the magic ran out Saturday night in a 28-0 loss to a big and fast Soquel High team in the Division II finals at San Jose City College on Nov. 25.
“Our head coach stepped down and I was talked into it,” said Yafai, who announced his retirement. “It’s been a dream. I’m glad I did it. I’m definitely sad tonight because we expect to win every game. Soquel is far and away the best team we’ve seen this year.”
During his short tenure, Yafai helped Christopher improve from a 7-6 overall record in 2021 to 9-2 in 2022, and finally 11-2 in 2023.
The Cougars also competed in seven CCS playoff games. Last week was the second championship game appearance for Yafai during his three-year run.
Christopher fought tooth and nail with the Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan Division runners-up, especially during the first half.
But the Knights broke away with big plays and a game-long physical defense.
On Saturday, William Rizqallah led the Cougars with 67 yards on 13 carries and Jaxon Robinson completed 7-of-13 passes for 31 yards.
Soquel was led by Tyreis Lundy with 16 rushes for 69 yards and a score, Jordan McCord with 67 yards and a touchdown on two carries and Braylon Noble with 50 yards and two tallies on five carries.
The Knights’ victory gave them their first CCS football title in school history in their first championship game appearance since 1987.
“We’ve never seen as ferocious a pass rush,” Yafai said. “Their front four is awesome. That pass rush took away our passing game. In the third quarter, the killer was they got the big long run. That made it 14-0.”
The Soquel pressure came from Malakai Ross-Graves, Cade Petersen, Justice Grauel-Tebong, Ben Palma, Django Daillak, Tanner Trowbridge and others.
“We shut them down,” said Grauel-Tebong, who was recently named the Gabilan Division’s Defensive Player of the Year. “We like to contain everybody. We got great players and we bring a lot of physicality and speed. This feels great. This is the first time in history for Soquel.”
Soquel set the tone with four first-half sacks and put constant pressure on Robinson. Yet the Cougars hung with the Knights for half the game.
In the first half, each team had one good drive and a subsequent collection of stalled possessions.
The Cougars competed evenly with great defensive effort from Danny Camilleri, Aaron Davis-Beckford and Gabriel Jiminez Yanez up front, along with the linebacking crew of Evan Vernon, Brandin Castillo and Devin Rios.
Matthew Boles, Tyler Green, Josiah Garcia, Amari Bluford and Eduardo Lazaro led the secondary.
Christopher’s initial drive went for 41 yards but ended in a fumble. Soquel moved the ball 51 yards and capped it off with a Noble 14-yard touchdown run.
Both defenses dominated from there until halftime.
“Our defense responded all year,” Soquel coach Dwight Lowery said. “We play fast and make plays. We knew they were a team that wouldn’t give up. Sometimes all you need is a play to spark the momentum.”
Soquel got those sparks firing following the break. After four plays that produced little, the Knights hit the jackpot.
McCord ran right, evaded tacklers and made a nifty cutback to the left and turned on the jets for a 67-yard touchdown.
On their next possession, Sam Whelan dropped a 33-yard dime into double coverage to Hudson Summerrill.
Two plays later, Noble scored on a counter from 30 yards out. Two explosive touchdowns and the scoreboard read 21-0.
“We bring the intensity and like to be physical,” Whelan said. “We like to get the ball to our stars. Give 33 (McCord) a shot, give it to 20 (Lundy). Coach said we needed one big play.”
The victory gave the Knights (11-2), who fashioned a second straight playoff shutout after beating Monterey 22-0 the previous week, the section title and a CIF NorCal Regional game.
Soquel’s lone losses on the season were to Division I champion Los Gatos High and PCAL Gabilan powerhouse Salinas High, a CIF Open Division semifinalist.
“I used to just teach history and be a JV football assistant,” Yafai said. “I’ve given our school three years and these guys have given me an excellent three years. We played seven CCS playoff games. We played in the CCS championship game in Division II now and that’s the big boys. The future of Christopher football is bright.”