However, the ride came to an abrupt end two victories shy of a section championship after a 42-23 loss to fifth-seeded Sacred Heart Cathedral in the Central Coast Section Division III semifinals Friday night in Gilroy.
“Who would have thought that we’d be in this position?” CHS head coach Tim Pierleoni said proudly afterward, reflecting on the past three years and what the Cougars had accomplished this season.
“I’m the least important person in this whole mix. It’s the kids and the coaching staff and the parents and the administrators that supported us,” he said. “Of course I’d love to be in the championship game next weekend, but I can walk away from this year with a smile on my face and feel good about the things we instilled with the kids.”
As trite as it may sound, the game played out as a proverbial tale of two halves.
The No. 1-seeded Cougars (10-2) stormed out of the gates, electrifying the hometown crowd on their first play from scrimmage. Brandon Pickens delivered a short touch pass over the middle for Marcus Harrell, who proceeded to go untouched 67 yards for the score 20 seconds into the game.
A Herman Enriquez 17-yard field goal and a 19-yard Pickens-to-Harrell pitch and catch (one play after CHS linebacker Patrick Mank intercepted SHC quarterback Jack Harrington) propelled CHS to a 17-6 advantage five minutes before halftime.
Enter Fighting Irish (7-5) running back Valentino Miles.
Miles, who had a combined 269 yards of offense (136 rushing and 133 receiving) and six touchdowns, began finding his way around and through Christopher’s defense. His 40 yards on five carries helped set up a 1-yard score 1:27 before the break that inched the Irish to within three points, 17-14
That drive set the Irish, who are out of San Francisco and play in the West Catholic Athletic League, train in motion. But what Miles did on the first play of the second half, sent it steamrolling at an unstoppable rate.
Miles took a swing pass and turned it into a magic show, breaking upward of six tackles as he rumbled down the left sideline 67 yards to give SHC its first lead, 20-17. The sequence completely swept momentum from underneath Christopher’s feet.
“That really hurt us. All of a sudden we were down and we should’ve tackled him. Two or three guys missed a tackle and he just ran through it,” Pierleoni said. “That definitely changed the whole momentum.”
The score contributed to a string of 36 unanswered Irish points.
“This game is so emotional – the first play of the second half – to shake a defender, break a tackle, break another tackle and go. That was something special,” SHC head coach John Lee said. “That fired the defense up and they come out and get a couple of three-and-outs.”
Miles scored twice more in the third quarter on runs of 7 yards and 1 yard, as the Irish defense forced three consecutive CHS punts.
“They played a good second half and figured out that they could run the ball on us and get it to (Miles). He’s their guy, and a very good football player,” Pierleoni said. “We needed to answer a few more times once they scored.”
Miles added his sixth touchdown – an 8-yard burst up the middle – to make it 42-17 with 6:43 to play in the game.
“We came out in the first quarter and we were all fired up to play, everybody was laying helmet out there. But I felt like, I don’t know, the second half came around and everyone’s heads went down when they started coming back on us,” CHS linebacker Mikey Pirnik said. “It’s tough.”
Needing a spark, the Cougars unveiled a perfectly executed halfback pass with Harrell connecting with Bryant Cid in-stride for a 54-yard touchdown that sliced into the deficit a bit, 42-23. The Cougars recovered their ensuing onside kick, but turned the ball over on downs with 5:11 to play. CHS got the ball back with 1:58 left and moved the it into SHC territory. Pickens’ last-second heave down field, though, was picked off as the clock showed triple digits.
“That team, 10 wins, the way they throw the ball – that concerned us all week,” Lee said. “That (Harrell) is the real deal. Coach Pierleoni and his staff do an excellent job. That first play of the game I went, ‘ah man, I don’t want to get into a foot race with these guys.’ Our guys just hunkered down.”
After the Cougars did well to stifle Miles and the Irish offense in the first half, SHC outgained CHS 273 to 120 in the second half. Sacred Heart totaled 394 yards of offense, Christopher 242. Harrington settled in after his rough first quarter and completed 12-of-19 passes for 212 yards, two scores and one pick. Pickens completed 19-of-27 for 197 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was also sacked three times. Harrell had a hand in all three of the Cougars touchdowns and finished the night with 10 catches for 114 yards. Matt Hewitson had five catches for 60 yards for Sacred Heart. The 42 points is the most the CHS defense had allowed this season.
The Irish the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal between No. 3 Valley Christian and No. 7 St. Ignatius in the finals Dec. 3. Both are WCAL teams.
“I don’t care who we play, but we can’t get cocky,” Lee said. “We have to stay focused and come out and do what we do best.”