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Head coach Adhir Ravipati, freshman quarterback Michael Mitchell Jr. win Riordan debuts

Archbishop Riordan coaches watch their team take on Granada during the first quarter of a high school football game, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | D. Ross Cameron for The Standard

If Saturday’s season-opening 31-10 win over Granada-Livermore was any indication of what Riordan football will look like under new head coach Adhir Ravipati, it’s going to be one heck of a ride.

Freshman quarterback Michael Mitchell Jr. threw for three touchdowns, Javius Redding returned a kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown and the Crusader defense recorded three interceptions in a game that was equal parts explosive, chaotic, sloppy and emotionally charged.

The 21-point margin of victory could have been far higher had the Crusaders not committed three turnovers of their own, including a fumble by Redding on their first offensive play of the season. The hosts were also whistled for 10 penalties, costing them 103 yards, with two personal fouls wiping out interception returns and a roughing the passer call negating a third pick.

Foggy conditions obscured the Saturday afternoon sun but did little to dampen the atmosphere, with a spirited home crowd, long lines for food trucks and the famed Crusader band playing from the stands behind the end zone. The only thing to dampen the mood was the game’s auspicious and premature ending.

Riordan (1-0) punted for the first time all day with 4:40 remaining, and while most eyes followed the ball across midfield, junior Aidan Laxa was thrown to the ground at the end of a physical sequence with a Granada player some 30 yards away from the punted ball. Laxa was conscious and had movement in all of his extremities but felt tingling in his spine. As a precaution, he was immobilized, escorted off on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital for further evaluation.

“I’m just really angry,” Ravipati said of the ending. “My kid got cheap shotted seconds after the play, and now he’s in the hospital.”

Medical personnel roll Riordan running back Aidan Laxa (31) off the field after he was seriously injured during the fourth quarter of a high school football game against Granada, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | D. Ross Cameron for The Standard

Near the end of the 15 minutes that it took to attend to Laxa, Ravipati got Granada’s approval to call the game with 4:30 left on the clock, avoiding further confrontation in a game that had been full of trash-talking from both sides. There was no singing of Riordan’s alma mater, and there were no postgame handshakes. Spectators slowly and quietly filed out of the stadium.

Before Laxa went down, the teams were on pace for a three-hour game thanks to the penalties and 20 incomplete Granada passes. Matadors quarterback Quinn Boyd showed off his strong arm, but he rarely had a clean line of vision with defensive end Isiah Chala charging at him on every play. Chala finished with three tackles for a loss.

“I just want to get after the quarterback,” Chala said. “Every time I got a chance, I had to blast him.”

Riordan defensive end Isiah Chala (52) celebrates with a teammate during the closing minutes of the fourth quarter of a high school football game against Granada, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | D. Ross Cameron for The Standard

Chala’s pressure was key in forcing Boyd into three interceptions, one to St. Ignatius transfer Tobey Weydemuller and two to Zachary Jones. Jones also had a 62-yard touchdown reception, but the play that drew him the most praise was one where he didn’t even touch the ball.

Riordan cornerback Tobey Weydemuller (4) intercepts a pass intended for Granada wide receiver Brayden Vash (83) during the second quarter of a high school football game, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | D. Ross Cameron for The Standard

Leading 14-7 and looking to tack on another score before halftime, the Crusaders faced fourth-and-5 at Granada’s 36 when Mitchell scrambled to his right. Jones made a fundamentally perfect play to wall off the defender without illegally screening him, allowing Mitchell to get the first down. Ravipati immediately went to congratulate Jones near the sideline.

“We practice our guys doing that, and we didn’t do it earlier in the game and it cost us a pick-six,” Ravipati said. “It’s always good to see us go from drill to skill. ZZ is a really smart kid and a big-time player. He’s always doing those little things like that consistently along with the big things like the catches and interceptions.”

That sort of attention to detail from Ravipati, his staff and his team showed the idealized style that the Crusaders are aiming for. It showed up in flashes during Saturday’s win, but the flags and turnovers reduced the performance from a masterpiece into a solid 21-point win.

“We’ve got to clean up some stuff,” Ravipati said. “We had some miscommunication today, three turnovers and two touchdowns called back on penalties. We’ve got to be better.” 

Redding’s early fumble meant the hosts couldn’t capitalize on their great field position from a shanked punt, but they quickly forced another three-and-out. On his second offensive play and first pass attempt of his career, Mitchell found Tyrone Jackson over the middle for a 55-yard touchdown.

Riordan wide receiver Tyrone Jackson (6) breaks free from Granada linebacker Jake Blake (33) for a touchdown during the first quarter of a high school football game, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | D. Ross Cameron for The Standard

“I thought (Mitchell) did some really good things,” Ravipati said. “Mike was able to fix some things on the field with miscommunication, and we’re really excited about where he’s headed with his career at Riordan.”

Nick Swartzendruber’s 24-yard run set Granada (0-1) up to tie the game on a 1-yard Leo Cruz touchdown run, but Mitchell wouldn’t get a chance to mount a response. Redding took care of that for him, taking the ensuing kick 85 yards to the house. A Jones interception in the final minute of the quarter would have gone for a 46-yard touchdown if not for a blindside block during the return, and the score stayed at 14-7 until halftime. Jones’ clever footwork on Mitchell’s fourth down conversion set up one last chance for the Crusaders to score going into the break, but Mitchell was tackled at the 5 on a scramble attempt.

Swartzendruber forced a Jones fumble in the red zone in the second quarter, but the 5-foot-8 receiver found the end zone in the third on a 62-yard catch-and-run, hauling in a pass from Mitchell after the freshman escaped heavy pressure from Riley Winchell. Mitchell threw his third and final touchdown with 6:30 left in the third quarter, a short pass to King-Njhsanni Wilhite that turned into a 55-yard score.

Known for his accolades on the basketball court, Wilhite lined up as a defensive back and returned kicks for the Crusaders during his junior year, but is in a much more prominent role as a senior, risking his physical condition to get the ball on offense. He finished with four catches for 82 yards and 12 rushing yards on three carries.

“The coaches put trust in me, playing me both ways,” Wilhite said. “It’s a lot of fun. I get to go out there with my brothers. I’ve known some of them since I was in first grade.”

Riordan wide receiver King-Njhsanni Wilhite (1) stiff arms Granada cornerback Christian Clouser (18) during the second quarter of a high school football game, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2022, in San Francisco, Calif. | D. Ross Cameron for The Standard

The Crusaders’ final score of the day reflected why Ravipati is so highly regarded as a coach. With a heavy wind blowing from east to west throughout the afternoon, Ravipati called timeout with two seconds remaining in the third quarter so that his team could run one more play with the wind at its back. That breeze allowed Finnbarr Harrington to convert a 42-yard field goal, extending the lead to 24. That same wind aided Granada kicker Brandon Niemeyer in the fourth quarter as he made a 44-yard try to end the day’s scoring.

Mitchell finished the day 15-of-21 passing for 340 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, with Granada’s Kalique Cheeves snatching a pass when Mitchell and his intended receiver weren’t on the same page. Mitchell’s 340 yards are the fifth-most in a game by a Riordan quarterback in school history, and his 198 yards in the third quarter set the school record for passing yards in a single quarter. Jones finished with five catches for 99 yards and Jackson had 123 yards on just three receptions. Cruz finished with 61 yards on 17 carries to lead the visiting Matadors.

While the other teams in the West Catholic Athletic League are scheduled to play all three of their non-kleague games before their bye week, Riordan has a rare Week 2 bye. The Crusaders return to action on Saturday, Sept. 10 at Tamalpais-Mill Valley. The Red-Tailed Hawks, who also have a bye next week, are 0-1 after a 41-6 loss at perennial Sonoma County power Windsor.

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