Serra finally beat De La Salle for the first time in program history, a landmark win in front of a national TV audience on ESPNU that helps cement the Padres as the top high school football team in Northern California and symbolizes the shift in power moving from the East Bay to the Peninsula.
The 24-21 road victory over the Spartans wasn’t entirely unexpected, considering Serra had beaten Folsom a week earlier. How it unfolded, though, will be talked about not only by Serra fans, but by football aficionados around the Bay Area for years to come.
It looked like the Padres’ chance had come and gone after they turned the ball over three times by the midpoint of the third quarter, including a pair of fumbles just shy of the goal line. De La Salle (1-1) turned the second of those fumbles into a go-ahead touchdown, and the Spartans suddenly looked unstoppable after making a switch at quarterback. Charles Greer was unstoppable going downhill, breaking the 100-yard mark and giving the hosts a 21-7 lead with a three-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
And then Serra (2-0) came back. Head coach Patrick Walsh’s speech at the start of the fourth quarter reminded his team that the game was still within reach, and junior quarterback Maealiuaki Smith, making just his second career start, skillfully led a pair of drives to tie the game. He converted a pair of third downs and a pair of fourth downs on the first drive, then turned to his running backs to even the score. An interception by Marley Alapati, who transferred to Serra from De La Salle after a family move from Concord to Daly City, set up Dylan Joudieh’s 20-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to cement the win.
“I never felt any doubt because we were moving the ball all night,” Walsh said.
Smith, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 267 yards, operated like a jazz musician at times. Pressure from De La Salle’s pass rush frequently forced the 6-foot-4 junior to improvise, but he found ways to put his own spin on what he was originally assigned, achieving the desired result despite rarely being able to take a conventional path to get there. No play exemplified this more than his shovel pass to Danny Niu to convert a third down early in the fourth quarter as he narrowly escaped two defenders. Just minutes earlier, Smith had been forced out of the game after a thunderous sack by De La Salle’s superstar, Notre Dame commit Cooper Flanagan.
Smith followed that up by hitting Grant McGovern for a pickup of 22 and a fourth-down conversion, and he found Jayden Weber underneath on a fourth-and-2 from the Spartan 14. Facing third-and-goal at the 3, Smith found Joey Villaroman in the front corner of the end zone to cut the lead to 21-14 with 8:11 remaining.
“He was born tonight,” Walsh said of Smith. “He scrambled to throw and made great decisions.”
The Spartans were poised to convert a third-and-19 on the following drive as sophomore quarterback Toa Fa’avae found Greer cutting to the right when the entire rest of the team went left, but Greer dropped the pass. Punting into the wind, De La Salle was unable to pin Serra deep, and the Padres needed just six plays to cover the 39 yards needed to tie the game, punching it in on a Jaden Green four-yard run with 3:06 left.
De La Salle, with just one timeout remaining, went backwards with two penalties, and Fa’avae, who had been excellent as a runner but had completed just one pass, underthrew a ball that Alapati dove for and cleanly picked.
“I had to stay disciplined,” Alapati said. “De La Salle are known for their trick plays. I saw everybody rolling right, so I had to stay home because I knew something was coming back.”
Two runs by Niu and one by option quarterback Alexander Atkins set Joudieh up to kick the go-ahead field goal, and the soccer standout drilled it with ease.
Serra’s players were ushered back to the sideline after being told that the kick went through with two seconds still on the clock, but the Spartans dropped the kickoff and never had a chance to return it or set up for a Hail Mary. The ball ended up in the hands of Collin Tahitua, the least frequently discussed member of Serra’s quartet of juniors that have been playing varsity football since they were freshmen.
“I’m taking this thing home and putting it in a case,” Tahitua said, still holding the ball 30 minutes after the game had ended.
The fumble recovery to end the game made for an ironic finish as the Padres would have never needed to come back in the first place had it not been for their own inability to hang on to the ball. Smith’s lone mistake of the night came with 5:16 left in the second quarter when his overthrown pass was picked off in the end zone by Grant Wells. Serra was in position to break the 7-7 deadlock before halftime when Chris Biller forced a fumble that Dom Gallwitz recovered, and Dylan Greeson both forced and recovered a fumble when Serra got down to the De La Salle 4 to open the third.
The Spartans advanced into Serra territory as Greer, a Fresno State commit, dragged a pile of defenders for a 27-yard gain, and after a holding penalty, Fa’avae cut to the left sideline for a 43-yard score. Putting Fa’avae, a mobile sophomore, at quarterback instead of Carson Su’esu’e helped get the Spartan offense out of the mud. After forcing Serra’s lone punt of the night, Fa’avae and Greer went on a six-minute, 10-second drive that covered 11 plays, including a 33-yard Greer pickup on an option pitch. Greer finished the drive off from three yards out.
Turnovers set up both the first and last scores of the night for Serra. Alapati recovered a bad handoff on the first DLS play from scrimmage.
“That was great,” Alapati said. ”It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
A bad snap and a false start left the Padres with third-and-goal from the 17, but they cashed in as Smith found Weber underneath. Weber finished with seven catches for 67 yards, leading all players in both categories.
“We kept finding him open under the middle,” Smith said.
De La Salle countered with an 18-play drive that took nine minutes and 29 seconds, twice converting fourth downs off Serra penalties before Su’esu’e scored on a one-yard sneak.
The win makes Serra the presumptive favorite to win the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL), and unless they slip up, the Padres will be projected to represent Northern California come December in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Open Division Championship Game, just as they did last year against Mater Dei. It’s the exact same position St. Francis was in for most of 2021, though the Padres upended the Lancers in the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division I Championship Game, avenging a regular season loss.
“One of our core values at Serra is humility, and I think this is an epic opportunity for us to actually try to live that,” Walsh said.
The Padres will round out their non-league schedule with their home opener on Saturday, Sept. 9 against Central Catholic-Modesto (1-2). The Raiders already played St. Francis, losing 35-28.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]