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Penalties doom Sacred Heart Cathedral in loss to St. Francis

Jerry Mixon Jr. (6) attempts to tackle St. Francis runing back Keala Keanaaina (3) during Sacred Heart Cathedral's 24-17 loss to the Lancers in Mountain View, Calif. on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

The Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish came into Friday night's matchup against the St. Francis Lancers fully aware of the challenges that their opponents in brown and white would bring.

Following a 24-17 loss, discussion focused more on the men wearing black and white stripes.

Officials flagged Sacred Heart Cathedral (3-3, 1-2 West Catholic Athletic League) 13 times for 105 yards as the Fightin’ Irish saw their best chance to beat the Lancers in 14 years slip through their fingers in a penalty-filled affair.

It all came to a head during the fourth quarter. After reaching the Lancer 24-yard line on back-to-back completions from Aidan McGrath to Enzo Quartaroli and Isaiah Keishk, the Irish racked up 50 yards worth of penalties. A holding penalty on second down was followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on the sideline for arguing the call, and after SHC got some of the yardage back on third down, another unsportsmanlike conduct flag was thrown on an Irish player.

The penalties reached a breaking point for the Irish during a strange sequence with about 8 and a half minutes left in the game where Cathedral was called for holding and back to back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that forced a rare fourth-and-42 and killed a drive that could have tied the game.

“All I could tell the players was to keep moving forward,” head coach Antoine Evans said of the slew of penalties. “I said to them, ‘let me fight and let me argue. ‘You guys keep your head in the game.’”

The penalties helped transform the second half into a completely different affair than the first two quarters. All 41 points were scored by halftime, with St. Francis (3-3, 2-1) getting the last laugh on Matt Dougherty Jr.’s 25-yard strike, which the 6-foot-5 senior threw off his back foot, to a diving Andrew Adkison.

Typically a run-heavy team, the Lancers still do the bulk of their work on the ground. Keala Keanaaina ran for 106 yards, but head coach Greg Calcagno gives Dougherty much more wiggle room than a typical St. Francis quarterback. That was evident when he entrusted Dougherty on fourth-and-13 at the SHC 31, and Dougherty hit Derek Gile for a 31-yard score to take a 17-14 lead with 3:52 left in the first half.

Sacred Heart Cathedral wide receiver Isaiah Keishk (2) catches a touchdown during the second quarter of the Fightin' Irish's 24-17 loss to St. Francis in Mountain View, Calif. on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

SHC responded quickly, tying the game at 17 on Brian Coyle’s 35-yard field goal with 2:25 left in the quarter. The Irish led 7-0 after McGrath’s early 20-yard touchdown to Arizona State commit RL Miller, and he hit Keishk, playing his first game of the season after recovering from a broken leg, to give the visitors a 14-10 advantage. Christopher Han’s 24-yard field goal late in the first quarter got St. Francis on the board, and the Lancers led 10-7 after Adkison’s first touchdown reception, a 19-yard fade route.

Penalties helped turn the game into a nearly three-hour affair. St. Francis was flagged 11 times for 95 yards, but still managed to post a 13th straight victory over the Irish.

“Saint Francis is a great program and they’ve been a great program for years. You can never count them out,” Evans said. “But we knew we had a great game plan. That's why this is so frustrating.”

Sacred Heart Cathedral receives a snap during the first quarter of the Fightin' Irish's 24-17 loss to St. Francis in Mountain View, Calif. on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

McGrath threw for 231 yards in the losing effort, all but cementing his role as the starting quarterback after he had been in a battle for the job through the first four games. Facing fourth-and-16 with 1:51 left, he found Mikey Calonico over the middle, but he was tackled two yards shy of the line to gain. The Lancers ran the clock out to seal the game, with Dougherty heaving up a deep ball to run the final seconds off the clock.

“Coming into this hostile environment, coming into the Rage Cage, it's a great community and a great program,” said Evans, who spoke glowingly of his team’s resiliency. “To keep your head with all the penalties and fight to the end, I’m proud of my guys.”

Sacred Heart Cathedral faces St. Ignatius (2-4, 1-2) next Friday at Kezar Stadium in the much-anticipated Bruce-Mahoney Game.