If RL Miller and Jerry Mixon Jr. weren’t already considered two of the best athletes in Sacred Heart Cathedral history, Friday night cemented it.
Having already won a state football championship as juniors, the duo combined to lead the Fightin’ Irish to the 2023 Central Coast Section (CCS) Open Division Basketball Championship as SHC beat the Serra Padres 64-59 at Santa Clara University.
Miller had a double-double by the end of the third quarter and finished with a game-high 24 points, while Mixon Jr., who’s already made a name for himself beyond being Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon’s cousin, scored 12.
“Mixon and RL, that’s the best I’ve ever seen them,” Serra head coach Chuck Rapp said. “They were shooting and hitting fadeaways and driving to the basket. Those guys look like D-1 athletes.”
Backup guards Mikey Calonico and Danilo Salgado were also on last season’s football team, which won the CCS Division III and California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division 4-A titles.
Winning an Open Division title is a bit different, though. Last year’s football run was magical in its own right, uniting a community in the aftermath of the pandemic, but that team’s successes came in lower divisions after a 3-7 regular season. Winning the CCS Division III football crown essentially meant they were the 17th-best team in the section.
“This is the top one right here,” Mixon said when comparing the championships. “We turned it around. Nobody expected us to be here, and we won it.”
A year ago, the Fightin’ Irish missed the playoffs entirely. They went just 4-16 in Caesar Smith’s first season as head coach, including 2-12 in West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) play.
“We changed the program right here,” said Mixon, who’s committed to play linebacker at Oregon. “Our athletic directors believe in us, and we believe in each other.”
“It’s just a process,” Smith added. “Nowadays, you want the finished product right away, but it’s a process. The kids have done a great job creating the culture and putting us in a position where no matter who we put out there, they give us 110%.”
Miller, a Fresno State linebacker commit, scored 10 of his 24 in the third quarter, including a tip-in of a lob pass on a fastbreak, a dunk and a layup off an inbound lob from half court. His putback with three minutes left in the third quarter tied the game at 38 and started a 7-0 run that gave the Irish a lead they’d never relinquish.
“He was having fun. We just played hard, and RL was just being himself,” Smith said. “It was a joy to watch.”
Fourth-seeded Serra (17-11) trailed by just three after Aidan Carleson’s tip-in early in the fourth, but Sacred Heart Cathedral (16-12) responded with an 8-0 run to take the first double-digit lead of the night. Michael Manfreda knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the arc and followed that up with a putback before Fed Pernell’s and-1 with 3:50 left made it 55-44.
The Padres made one last push, getting within seven on a putback from their own football star, Harvard-bound tight end Seamus Gilmartin, but never got within seven until Andrew McDowell’s 3-pointer in the dying seconds. Two nights after knocking down 10 3-pointers in the first half to upset Mitty, Serra shot just 6-for-22 from 3-point range.
“We had some breakdowns,” Rapp said after his team fell to 1-3 in Open Division Championship Games. “In a game like this, you need some help, and we didn’t get any help from the officials.”
Between the 7:37 mark of the third quarter and the 1:01 mark of the fourth, the Fightin’ Irish weren’t whistled for a single foul. Fouls were 7-1 with two minutes left in the fourth quarter before Serra started fouling intentionally to prolong the game.
“It was a perfect storm of they played well, we had breakdowns and the officials didn’t help us either,” Rapp said. “We had been playing so well for so long, and we were due for an off night. You can’t sustain that run forever.”
Gilmartin, who was sensational throughout the Padres’ six-game winning streak, did all he could with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
“That dude’s a monster on the boards,” Manfreda said. “We did our best on him.”
While Gilmartin feasted, point guard Ryan Pettis, who scored 22 in Wednesday’s win, was limited to just five points.
“They’re quick, so they can match his speed with a number of guys,” Rapp said. “His shot wasn’t falling. I think that had something to do with the college background.”
The seats behind the basket at the Leavey Center can alter players’ depth perception, but it didn’t seem to rattle the Fightin’ Irish, who went 6-for-12 from 3-point range.
“I was just focusing on the rim, like my dad told me before the game,” said Manfreda, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the final quarter. “Just focus on the rim. Don’t focus on anything behind you.”
Manfreda’s father, Vince, graduated from SHC in 1988 and hit a game-winning shot in the Bruce-Mahoney Game to defeat St. Ignatius.
Fed Pernell finished with 10 points and five assists for the Irish, who saw four of their five starters reach double figures. The fifth starter, Zemaury Erfe, didn’t score, but was instrumental in holding Pettis in check.
“He texted me at 10:30 last night and said, ‘I got Pettis,’” Smith said.
Pettis scored 24 points in the teams’ first regular season meeting and 21 in the second, including 15 in the second half. He appeared to be on the brink of another monster second half after his 3-pointer gave Serra a 31-28 lead with 6:40 left in the third quarter, but Erfe ensured the star junior never scored again.
Carleson, who went scoreless on Wednesday but dished out seven assists, kept Serra afloat. The Pacifica native hit a pair of threes in the third quarter and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.
“He made some key plays to keep us going,” Rapp said.
Elicagaray and McDowell each scored nine for Serra, but the Padres never had an answer for Miller.
“I just found a rhythm from my first shot,” he said.
Miller hit a pair of threes in the first quarter, accounting for eight of SHC’s 11 points. The Fightin’ Irish led 11-7 after eight minutes and went into halftime up 28-25 after a Mixon 3-pointer.
“They beat us bad in football, so we had to get it back in basketball,” Mixon said, referring to the 43-7 thrashing that Serra handed the Irish on the gridiron in November to close out an undefeated regular season.
Gilmartin caught a touchdown in that game and thrived on Friday night, but the evening belonged to Miller.
Both teams, along with the other six who played in the Open Division, will advance to the CIF State Tournament. Seedings and matchups will be announced on Sunday afternoon at cifstate.org.
Mitty Rolls to Girls Title
Freshman sensation McKenna Woliczko finished with 22 points and seven rebounds as the Mitty Monarchs cruised past the Pinewood Panthers to win the CCS Open Division Girls Basketball crown, 74-51.
It marked the eighth Open Division title in 11 years for Mitty (26-2). Morgan Cheli, who missed much of the season with a foot injury, finished with 18 points and six rebounds. The Monarchs took a double-digit lead with a 13-0 run late in the first quarter, led 40-23 at halftime and stretched the margin as wide as 31 in the fourth.
Woliczko scored 16 in the first half, while Cheli scored 16 across the final two quarters. Maya Hernandez finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, while Elle Hanson scored 18 off the bench.
Alex Facelo scored a game-high 23 for third-seeded Pinewood (16-11). The Panthers, who have faced Mitty in each of the last eight Open Division Championship Games, losing seven, also got 13 points from Jolyn Ding.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]