When the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish lost a penalty-filled affair to St. Francis on Oct. 7, postgame conversations focused on hopes for a second shot at the Lancers.
They’ll get that shot on Friday night.
The Fightin’ Irish are the seventh seed in the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division I Playoffs, and they’ll return to Ron Calcagno Stadium at 7 p.m. on Friday for a quarterfinal against St. Francis (7-3).
“It was great to get that shot again. We believe we had a really good shot to beat them the first time,” head coach Antoine Evans said. “We’ll need to be at our best, though. They’ve improved as the season has gone along, like teams with really good coaching staffs always do.”
The Lancers have won six straight games since a Sept. 23 loss to Serra, even after quarterback Matt Dougherty Jr. suffered a concussion against Riordan. Sophomore Aaron Knapp has led the offense with exceptional composure in his absence as St. Francis finished the regular season with wins over both Bellarmine and Mitty. The Lancer defense has also hit its stride over the last four games, allowing just 37 points with linebacker Ofa Tuiileila finding his groove.
While San Francisco’s seven public school football teams are in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA), which will conclude its regular season on Friday, the city’s three West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) schools compete in the CCS, which governs athletics as far south as Monterey County.
Since 2019, the CCS has split its teams into divisions using a “competitive equity” format that is meant to mirror the system the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) uses at the state level. Past CCS systems separated teams into different brackets by enrollment or strength of league, but the current model ranks the 40 playoff teams, then splits them into eight-team divisions through a combination of a results-based points system and computer rankings.
Through that system, the top eight teams are in Division I, the next eight are in Division II, and so on. Last year, SHC was ranked 19th out of the 40 playoff teams and was given the third seed in Division III, barely qualifying after posting a 3-7 regular season record but earned rewards for playing a loaded schedule.
“It’s nothing perfect, but I like it because the best gotta play the best, and it rewards teams that play a tough schedule,” Evans said. “You look at the NCS (North Coast Section), Marin Catholic shouldn’t be in Division 4.”
While the CCS selects its 40 teams and then splits them into divisions, the NCS sets its divisions before the season, with a maximum of eight teams qualifying in each division. NCS divisions are largely based on enrollment, though teams are occasionally moved up and down based on historic success, or lack thereof.
Under the “competitive equity” system, the Fightin’ Irish won a bracket of teams ranked 17th through 24th in the section, then went on to win Northern California and CIF Division 4-A crowns.
Sacred Heart Prep also won a section and state title last year, claiming CCS Division IV and CIF Division 5-A after going 3-7 against a grueling schedule. This year, Mountain View qualified for the playoffs at 3-7 after facing the likes of Mitty and SHP, while 8-2 Rancho San Juan missed out after playing a schedule consisting of ‘B’ and ‘C’ league teams.
The mix of points and computer rankings considers the 2022 SHC team to be the seventh-best team in the section, meaning a road to another section championship would likely not only have to go through the Lancers, but also the same Serra team that handed the Irish a 43-7 beatdown on Saturday. The 10-0 Padres, the section’s lone undefeated team, is the top seed in Division I and will host No. 8 Palma (8-2) on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re thankful to be in Division I and to get to play St. Francis again,” Evans said. “Hopefully we get to play Serra again too.”
Palma is ranked eighth, while Wilcox (9-1) is ranked ninth and has the top seed in Division II. The Chargers eliminated St. Ignatius in the Division II Semifinals last year, squeaking out a 20-13 win on the way to a Northern California Division 2-A Championship and televised state title game appearance. The Wildcats held the seventh seed in Division II in 2021, and beat a Palma team missing its starting quarterback in the quarterfinals.
St. Ignatius (4-6) is once again in Division II this year, this time as the second seed after beating Riordan in what was effectively a play-in game. They’ll host No. 7 Half Moon Bay (7-3) on Friday night. After playing a WCAL schedule full of spread offenses, the Wildcats will need to shift gears to defend HMB’s version of the triple option, a unique scheme that utilizes blocking schemes that often resemble a rugby scrum to compensate for the Cougars’ lack of size.
“They have a workmanlike personality that shows in their players’ effort, physicality, toughness and competitiveness,” SI head coach John Regalia said.
Should the Wildcats fend off the Cougars, another tricky run-heavy opponent would likely follow. Aptos (8-2) is seeded third, and the Mariners run an up-tempo version of the wing-T offense designed by legendary head coach Randy Blankenship, he of 310 career wins. The Mariners host No. 6 Christopher (9-1) on Friday night.
High seeds host both quarterfinals and semifinals, with championships to be played at neutral sites on Thanksgiving weekend. Last year’s championships were split between Sequoia, located in Redwood City, and Westmont, located on the border of San Jose and Campbell.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]