Sacred Heart Cathedral’s season ended on Friday night, and with it, so did the careers of two of the best and most influential players to ever strap on the pads for the Fightin’ Irish.
The 17-14 defeat to St. Francis in the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division I Quarterfinals signaled the end of RL Miller and Jerry Mixon Jr.’s time suiting up in the green and white.
While their careers will be remembered for bringing unprecedented success to the SHC football program, Friday night’s loss will sting, as the Irish were painstakingly close to upending the same Lancers side that they lost to by a single score during the regular season.
Penalties were the deciding factor in that Oct. 7 loss, and they surfaced again at Ron Calcagno Stadium on Friday night, where Sacred Heart Cathedral (6-5) was flagged nine times for 80 yards.
“I don’t know what the ref was seeing,” head coach Antoine Evans said.
Arguably the most significant of those infractions came with five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Leading 14-10, the Irish had stopped No. 2 St. Francis (8-3) in plus territory and received an enormous gift from the usually sound Lancers when a snap sailed over punter Leo Maiuolo’s head. Instead of being pinned at their own goal line, the Irish had the ball at the St. Francis 36.
The opportunity vanished as quickly as it had appeared. A hold on first down wiped out a 4-yard Kendric Sanders gain, Mack Mrowka knocked a pass out of Miller’s hands and Keala Keanaaina intercepted a deep ball on third-and-19. Over the next eight minutes, the Lancers traveled 85 yards on 13 plays, nine of which were Kingston Keanaaina runs, to score their lone offensive touchdown of the night, taking the lead for good on Kingston’s 4-yard run with 8:26 left.
“They started running the motion, and our guy wasn’t shifting over, so they got the extra guy on the backside and kinda wore our guys down,” Evans said of the drive.
Eight minutes later, it was all over. The Irish went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, and though they did have one last chance after a Jay Murphy fourth down interception, Aidan McGrath underthrew Mikey Calonico on fourth-and-2 with 34 seconds remaining.
On the final drive, the Irish had tried to capture some of the razzle-dazzle that’s been synonymous with Miller and Mixon, but couldn’t catch lightning in a bottle. Mixon, whose halfback pass to Miller served as the winning score in a season-opening win over Sacred Heart Prep, tried to throw a wide receiver pass to Miller on the final set of downs. Miller was able to get behind two defenders, but the pass was overthrown.
By itself, the incompletion would have hurt. It wasn’t just an incomplete pass, though. McGrath’s pass to Mixon to set up the play, which was supposed to be a lateral, traveled forward, making Mixon’s heave an illegal forward pass. The resulting penalty left the Irish with third-and-19, and though Calonico got open underneath to make up the penalty yardage, he was shy of the sticks.
Even if McGrath had connected with Calonico on fourth down, the Irish still would have needed to travel 30 yards in the final 27 seconds just to get into field goal range.
“We never had a game come down to this, and we struggled with it,” Evans said. “But there was stuff open. We just needed to execute it.”
While SHC failed to execute a two-minute drill at the end of the game, the Lancers ran one to perfection to close the first half, setting up the field goal that ultimately provided the three-point margin. Starting at their own 48 with 1:19 on the clock, the hosts were pushed back on a block in the back penalty, then nearly lost possession, but Danilo Salgado was ruled out of bounds before he could secure an interception. St. Francis got into field goal range as Kingston Keanaaina (33 carries-169 yards) ran for a gain of 23, then caught a Matt Dougherty Jr. swing pass for a 10-yard gain with seven seconds left in the half to set up Christopher Han’s 34-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
Big plays by Mixon and Miller put the guests ahead in the third. Andrew Adkison’s 32-yard reception in tight coverage had the Lancers on the precipice of a two-score lead, but Mixon intercepted a pass just shy of the goal line.
“That’s just a different level guy,” St. Francis head coach Greg Calcagno said of Mixon. “We play action faked at him, and we ran our tight end on a corner. He was going for the dive, and then he makes a pick. You can’t really get too mad at your quarterback when a guy’s making those kinds of plays.”
Miller then took a short McGrath pass for a 59-yard gain, and Sanders set up first-and-goal by drawing a flag for a late hit after a 14-yard pickup. Mixon scored on a 1-yard plunge on third-and-goal, giving the Irish the lead with 8:53 left in the third.
The Lancers scored first on Junior Fiaui’s 50-yard pick-six, a bizarre play where a pass got sandwiched between him and Calonico before Fiaui ended up securing it and dodging McGrath’s attempted tackle on his way to the end zone. SHC responded four minutes later on Sanders’ 43-yard touchdown run.
Sanders ran 14 times for 84 yards. While Mixon and Miller were repeatedly lauded, and deservedly so, contributions from Sanders and the other 20 seniors shouldn’t be ignored.
“(Miller) and (Mixon) get a lot of credit, but there are a lot of good football players on that team,” Calcagno said before going on to highlight Murphy and safety Nick Feliciano.
Players like Murphy, Feliciano, Calonico and Isaiah Keishk were all instrumental at various points over the last two years for the Fightin’ Irish, but Mixon and Miller represented something different. They gave SHC star power that hadn’t been present in prior years. Having a pair of Pac-12-bound recruits on the roster attracted interest wherever they went. Even after Friday’s loss, a group of St. Francis students asked Mixon for photos.
“We’re getting a lot of kids to come to our school,” Mixon said. “We’re going to be better over the next two to four years, for sure.”
In addition to his interception and rushing touchdown, Mixon had three catches for 16 yards and even threw a 22-yard pass to Calonico when McGrath was getting his ankle tended to. Sanders broke free two plays later.
To the Lancers’ credit, they managed to turn the game into a battle of attrition after falling behind. With only a couple of linemen playing both offense and defense, St. Francis had superior stamina in the fourth quarter. It showed on the drive leading up to the younger Keanaaina’s touchdown, as well as when the Lancer defense forced a three-and-out on the following series. Dougherty found Adkison (four catches-58 yards) for a 13-yard pickup to convert a third-and-11, but Murphy’s interception with 1:59 left gave the Irish one last glimmer of hope.
Murphy’s interception was the last of three fourth-down stops by the Irish defense. St. Francis faced fourth and 1 at the SHC 40 in the first quarter, but Jabari Ryan stopped Kingston in the backfield. The Lancers went on to punt on their next two fourth downs in plus territory, and would have a third time had the snap not gone over Maiuolo’s head.
For the Irish to exit in the first round of the playoffs a year after a state championship run shows some of the caveats of the CCS’ “competitive equity” system. With emphasis on avoiding postseason blowouts, the section uses computer rankings to order its 40 playoff teams. The top eight go to Division I, the next eight go to Division II, and so on. The 2021 Fightin’ Irish, who finished the regular season 3-7 thanks to four losses by 10 points or fewer, were ranked 21st and found themselves in Division III. The 2022 team was ranked seventh, and while they came up short on Friday night, they certainly proved they belonged, something that would have been unthinkable in prior years.
“Nobody expected us to go D1 this year,” Miller said. “Everyone doubted us. Even our own fans asked if D1 would be too hard for us. We made history for our school.”
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]