By Jeremy Balan
SALINAS – It’s going to be an all-West Catholic Athletic League semifinal round in the Central Coast Section Open Division football playoffs and St. Ignatius is a part of the party.
With a commanding 49-14 win over third-seeded Palma on the road at Salinas Sports Complex on Friday, the Wildcats claimed their first Open Division playoff win in school history.
Bellarmine, Mitty and Serra also dispatched their opponents in first-round matchups and the sixth-seeded Wildcats (8-3) will take on the seventh-seeded Monarchs in the semifinals.
“It’s the best league and it really prepares you for these games,” St. Ignatius quarterback Jack Stinn said of the WCAL’s first-round sweep. “It feels great to be here. Last year, winning the Division III championship was awesome, but you’re still not the best. If you win the Open Division, you’re the best, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
Stinn had his best game of the season, with 190 yards and three touchdowns on 9-of-10 passing to go along with 68 yards rushing on eight carries.
The Wildcats totaled 408 yards of offense and got another big game from junior running back Elijah Dale, who had 116 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
“For the whole four quarters, that was our most complete game,” Stinn said. “If we eliminated those fumbles, we would have killed them.”
The one nagging issue for St. Ignatius was fumbles, but the Wildcats only lost two of five that hit the turf, including a 70-yard recovery for a touchdown by Palma’s Austin Wahl that cut the SI lead to 21-14 with 49 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
What happened on the next drive, however, changed the course of the entire game.
It took the Wildcats just two plays to get into the Chieftains’ territory, but during a 15-yard scramble by Stinn, Palma senior defensive lineman Tyler Escoto made helmet-to-helmet contact with one of his own teammates while making the tackle. Escoto remained on the turf for nearly 30 minutes after the collision and was removed from the field on a stretcher by paramedics.
Two plays later, Stinn hit Andrew Vollert for his second touchdown of the night from 23 yards out with 19 seconds left in the half. Vollert had five receptions for 94 yards and the last-minute touchdown started a run of 28 unanswered points for St. Ignatius. Palma (8-3) didn’t score again.
“It felt like we were getting back in there, but they had to go through the same thing,” Palma head coach Jeff Carnazzo said of the emotional swing and extended break that occurred after Escoto’s injury. “It’s our teammate and our guys were worried about it, but the fact is, we have to make a stop and we didn’t. That score changed the whole complexion of the game.”
The Wildcats put the game away in the third quarter with an interception returned for a touchdown by senior cornerback Albert Waters and a winding, 64-yard touchdown pass from Stinn to Joe Lang. Lang broke one tackle after taking in a short-distance pass, then burst down the right sideline before cutting back to the middle of the field for the score.
Waters’ interception was his sixth of the year, but he nearly had his seventh and broke up several passes in the Wildcats’ secondary that held Palma quarterback Mitch Kidd to 160 yards on 13-of-29 passing.
“Albert has a lot of experience [as a three-year starter], which is a big deal at that position, because sometimes you’re going to be on an island and you have to be able to make plays,” said St. Ignatius head coach John Regalia. “That’s a great thing to have for our defense and our secondary is really starting to play well.”
St. Ignatius fed the ball to Dale with regularity to wind down the clock in the second half and junior fullback Brian Wollitz capped the Wildcats’ scoring with a 4-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Wollitz played in his first game since dislocating his elbow against Marin Catholic in the first week of the season. He finished with 24 yards on seven carries.
Stinn only threw the ball twice in the third quarter and didn’t attempt a pass in the fourth.
“That’s how we like to end games,” Regalia said. “We definitely want to be on that side, with the ball and running the ball.”
SI: 4:32 – Elijah Dale 1-yard run (Michael Capitolo kick)
SI: 0:28 – Andrew Vollert 36-yard pass from Jack Stinn (Capitolo kick)
SI: 9:45 – Dale 2-yard run (Capitolo kick)
P: 8:26 – Brandon Olivares 7-yard run (Eddy Munoz kick)
P: 0:49 – Austin Wahl 70-yard fumble return (Munoz kick)
SI: 0:19 – Vollert 23-yard pass from Stinn (Capitolo kick)
SI: 2:18 – Albert Waters 18-yard interception return (Capitolo kick)
SI: 0:16 – Joe Lang 64-yard pass from Stinn (Capitolo kick)
SI: 3:30 – Brian Wollitz 4-yard run (Capitolo kick)