A week after the St. Ignatius Wildcats won the turnover battle on the way to a playoff triumph, they found themselves on the other side of the coin.
The Wildcats committed four turnovers in the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division II Championship Game, the last of which set up Ben Pfaff’s go-ahead 8-yard touchdown run with 1:01 remaining in a 21-14 loss to the Bellarmine Bells at San Jose City College.
Sophomore running back Jarious Hogan had provided an enormous lift in the running game for St. Ignatius (6-7) since his callup to the varsity team after five junior varsity games, with 156 yards in a quarterfinal victory against Half Moon Bay and 115 in last week’s semifinal win over Aptos, but his two fumbles loomed large on Saturday night.
“No one play defines a season, and no one play defines any player,” head coach John Regalia said. “He’s no different.”
Bellarmine defensive lineman Jae’Von Reels ripped a ball out of Hogan’s grasp in the red zone in the first quarter with the game tied 7-7, and Braden Cantlen popped a ball loose in the fourth quarter that Brandon Broch recovered at the SI 32 with 3:50 remaining. Pfaff gained 17 yards on the next play, then converted a third-and-4 with 2:29 left before breaking through for the go-ahead score.
With no timeouts remaining, the second-seeded Wildcats got one first down on Soren Hummel’s completion to Pierce St. Geme, but Reels’ third sack of the night forced SI to burn a down to stop the clock. On fourth-and-15 with 22 seconds left, Hummel found Moe Barnum over the middle, but defensive back Philip Miller popped the ball loose with a jarring hit, ending the game.
Had the Wildcats won, St. Geme would have been a hero. He had six catches for 164 yards, including two long touchdowns in the first half. His 71-yard score on the third play of the game put the ‘Cats on the board first, and his 80-yard sprint on a screen in the second quarter tied the game at 14.
While the first half was a series of lightning-quick drives, including three that ended in Wildcat turnovers, the second half was a slow burn that stayed around the middle of the field. The first seven drives of the half all ended with punts, including one where SI converted a fake punt on the final play of the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-2 at their own 39, the Wildcats snapped to upback Atticus Moustakas, who got the necessary yardage by a matter of inches. Still, they ended up punting on the next set of downs after Cantlen broke up a pass and Evan Chung rushed the pocket to force a Hummel incompletion.
Moustakas was an unsung hero for the Wildcats, recording a sack, another tackle for loss and recovering a muffed punt to prevent the Bells from taking over in plus territory.
The Wildcats’ best chance to score in the second half had come on their prior drive, the only one in the final two quarters where they breached Bellarmine territory. Backup quarterback Mac McAndrews came in at wide receiver, took a lateral and threw it back to Hummel, who gained five yards on the play, but backup running back Danny Jung was wide open downfield. Two plays later, SI punted.
The St. Ignatius run game, which had been so solid over the prior three games, was limited to 15 yards, and even if the five Bellarmine sacks are taken out of the equation, the Wildcats ran for just 37.
“Their middle linebackers are talented,” Regalia said of the struggles running the ball. “They did a really good job of coaching those guys to be in the right position.”
St. Geme’s touchdown 52 seconds into the game was quickly answered by fifth-seeded Bellarmine (7-6). Pfaff’s 61-yard run set up Jake Hanson’s 5-yard touchdown run up the middle. It was Hanson’s only carry of the game. A 58-yard pass from Hummel (12-24 passing, 273 yards) to Barnum on the next set of downs put SI right back in the red zone, but Reels forced the game’s first turnover immediately after.
The Bells then traveled 68 yards over the following five minutes and 10 seconds, by far the longest drive of the first half by time of possession, but failed to score after a pass carried Sean McGuire out of bounds shy of the first down marker. Bellarmine took the lead for the first time with 7:09 left in the second quarter, taking advantage of the first of two interceptions. Broch dove to catch a dropped screen pass, and quarterback Nate Escalada scored on a 3-yard run after pitching to Pfaff (18 carries-133 yards) on an option play to convert a third-and-5. Two plays later, St. Geme was in the end zone again to tie the game.
Despite committing a third turnover before halftime and shanking a punt, the Wildcats managed to get into the locker room even at 14. Hummel made a rare mistake by forcing a pass into tight coverage that Ben Coulter picked off with one hand, but an illegal block put the Bells back on their own side of midfield. Facing a third-and-31, Escalada (19-28 passing, 125 yards) threw up a deep ball for McGuire that Dash Crispen intercepted. Reels’ first sack and a 13-yard punt gave the Bells 51 seconds to try to score before halftime, but even after starting at the Wildcat 37, they couldn’t generate any progress thanks to a Santino Franco sack and a Moustakas tackle after the junior linebacker blew up a screen play.
The loss extended the Wildcats’ section championship drought. While going 10 years without a CCS title would be a short window for most teams, five of the other seven West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) teams have won section championships since then.
Still, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in the Sunset District. Hummel is only a sophomore, and there’s also tons of buzz surrounding freshman quarterback Caedon Afsharipour, who spent the season on a JV team that went 8-1. Hogan is also a sophomore, and backfield partner Cameron Jones is a junior. Other key sophomores include linebacker Sui Gallegos-Hunkin, who suffered a knee injury late in the first quarter, and defensive back Chase Wiley, who broke up a pass against hulking Bells tight end Joe Fuqua, who caught five passes for a team-high 49 yards. Barnum, St. Geme and linebacker Patrick Bruso are juniors.
That’s not to say this senior class lacked impact players, though. Franco, kicker Cooper Lucey and wide receiver Gus Parker all played instrumental roles for the Wildcats on the field, while seniors like McAndrews saw their playing time decline over the course of the season, it never caused any friction.
“The dynamics were interesting,” Regalia said. “We had a senior class with tremendous experience and younger guys that were developing. The senior group was completely selfless in that whole process to pull these guys in and push them. That’s something not every team can figure out, and these guys did it.”
"These guys are my brothers," added Franco, a team captain and emotional leader. "It's a blessing. I wouldn't want to lose with any other team."