When the Central Coast Section football playoff brackets were released, Christopher High coach Darren Yafai felt Sacred Heart Cathedral was the best team in the Division III field.
He was correct. The Fightin’ Irish put forth dominating performances including one on Saturday night in the championship game against the Cougars, who saw their season come to an end in a 27-3 loss at Sequoia High in Redwood City.
“We ended up being the second best team in Division III,” Yafai said. “We told our guys when you go into battle and play with heart and give maximum effort like we did, there’s no shame in that. That’s what we take away from this game. We had a great journey, a lot of fun and made a bunch of memories. I know we can walk out of here with our heads held up high.”
Yafai credited No. 3 seed Sacred Heart Cathedral (6-7) for throttling Christopher’s offense and making some big plays against a stingy CHS defense. The No. 4 seed Cougars (7-6) were limited to 173 yards of total offense, most likely their lowest output of the season.
CHS couldn’t establish a run game and though it did connect on some big plays through the air—Spencer Gorgulho was 19-of-28 for 184 yards with two interceptions—it wasn’t nearly consistent enough to sustain drives and get into the end zone. The Cougars reached the red zone just twice all game and scored its only points on Jermaine Thomas’ 25-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
The CHS defense played tough yet again, but even then it was nearly impossible to prevent a potent SHC offense from making big plays. SHC led 7-3 at halftime before pulling away with 13 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 20-3 lead entering the fourth. Irish quarterback Ray John-Spears was 14-of-24 passing for 227 yards, averaging 16.2 yards per completion.
For every three to four plays CHS limited Spears to a short gain, he would answer with a huge run or pass play.
“I felt really good at halftime, but they made some clutch third and fourth down plays with their quarterback scrambling around,” Yafai said. “He made a play when we were down 7-3 where he rolls right on fourth down, we’re in his face and he throws all the way across the field and completes it. That was a big play so credit to them and their playmakers that when it counted in crucial situations, they came up with some clutch, clutch plays. That’s the mark of a good football team.”
The Irish won despite being careless with the football, basically gift-wrapping the Cougars three possessions—the first on a high snap that sailed over Spears’ head and the second on a botched handoff with Payton Wheeler recovering both of them. Alas, CHS could only convert those turnovers into three points, a testament to the ultra-tough SHC defense.
SHC’s first major miscue gave CHS the ball just 29 yards from the end zone. However, after Gorgulho’s 20-yard completion to Eric Argumnedo, the drive—which actually got to the 1-yard line—stalled and the Cougars had to settle for a field goal. SHC also fumbled away its next possession, with Wheeler recovering at his own 43-yard line with 9 minutes, 8 seconds left in the second quarter.
But the SHC defense held firm and forced a punt. Thomas and Nick Pham combined to force a pass breakup just before halftime to preserve the score at 7-3. Argumnedo had a couple of nice open field tackles along with an 18-yard run, and Rossi Oteri was his usual solid self making several tackles.
The Irish had two other fumbles they recovered, at times seemingly treating the football like a hot potato. Jaterius Lee was limited to five receptions for 34 yards, but his versatility was evident in a textbook tackle he made on special teams along with some nice returns. Kingsley Okoronkwo had another solid performance going both ways, finishing with a team-high 49 receiving yards.
Despite the loss, Yafai was smiling afterward, knowing this CHS team had already made program history by setting a single-season record for most league wins in an A division this year (four). Seniors including Gorgulho, Thomas, Pham, Oteri, Wheeler, Mikey Cambria, Osvaldo Jimenez Yanez, Luis Ramos, Vincenzo Mesa, Mason Pena, and Cody Ahola—just to name several—helped set a standard for success in the coming years.
And juniors like Lee, Argumnedo, Okoronkwo and Jacob Ahumada will spearhead next year’s senior class and hope to lead the team back for another deep playoff run.
“I told all our guys who are coming back our seniors set the foundation here,” Yafai said. “In the next couple of years, our goal is we want to get back to this game and come out on top.”
Yafai had such a great experience this season that he’s already committed to returning next year. Before the season started, he took the position with a year-by-year approach, but now it seems like he’ll be manning the sideline for a bit longer.
“I had a blast this year,” he said. “It helps when you have great young men and a supportive coaching staff that works their butts off. I told myself 14 years ago I’ll never be a head football coach again, but we had a lot of fun and coaching this year really recharged my batteries a little bit.”
The Cougars had a stirring playoff run, edging Palo Alto 28-27 and following that up with a dominating 25-point win over Leland. Several players earned Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division All League honors, including Oteri, who was named the Defensive MVP which is an automatic first team selection.
Lee earned second team honors along with Pena, Ramos and Okoronkwo. Wheeler was selected for the all sportsmanship team.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.