By Jeremy Balan
The St. Ignatius football team’s matchup against Bellarmine in the Central Coast Section Open Division championship on Friday night may not be the biggest game in the school’s long football history, but it’s awfully close.
It would be hard to argue anything can top last season’s win over eternal rival Sacred Heart Cathedral in front of 12,000 fans at AT&T Park in the Division III championship, but that was the end of the season for the Wildcats.
Much more is on the line Friday.
With a win over the top-seeded Bells, St. Ignatius would almost surely secure a regional title game bid (it is the first year the CIF is having regional championships before state title games), giving the sixth-seeded Wildcats a shot at a state championship, an unprecedented accomplishment for any City football program (state title games began in 2006).
“That stuff is not on our radar,” St. Ignatius head coach John Regalia said of the implications a win over Bellarmine might bring. “We know those things are there and if you win a section title, you can get recognized there, but we’re concerned about preparing the best we can for Bellarmine this week.”
Based on history, the game is an inarguable mismatch.
The Bells have 19 West Catholic Athletic League titles (the highest total of any school in the league), have won six CCS championships and have been to two state championship games (one of just four schools from Northern California to make a state bowl game multiple times).
St. Ignatius, conversely, has won two WCAL titles (a split title with Serra in 2006 and a outright championship in 1967, the WCAL’s first year of competition), has won two CCS titles (both in lower divisions) and has never sniffed a state bowl game.
The game is also on Bellarmine’s home field at San Jose City College and the Bells have nearly double the enrollment of boys St. Ignatius has. On the field, Bellarmine has also won the last six meetings between the two teams.
While it would be easy to embrace the underdog role, for Regalia and the Wildcats, it’s like a normal WCAL week, just on a bigger stage.
“Our guys have been on plenty of big stages this year and in the past few years,” Regalia said. “We have a good, mature group and haven’t really changed our routine, and haven’t needed to.”
The regular-season meeting between the two teams was also very close, with Bellarmine prevailing in a 35-28 win at St. Ignatius on Oct. 27.
That game ultimately came down to St. Ignatius’ inability to stop the run-first, double-wing Bellarmine offense, specifically on the Bells’ last drive of the game, when they ate up the final 3:56 of game time when the Wildcats desperately needed a stop.
The Bells ran for 299 yards in the double-wing directed by Vanderbilt-bound junior quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels in October and had possession for 19 of the 24 minutes of game time.
That game plan likely won’t change on Friday night.
“We’re going to run our offense and we’re a running team,” said Bellarmine head coach Mike Janda. “We’re going to run our offense and throw the ball as needed. Each team will throw in a few wrinkles, but when it comes down to it, each team will go to what they do best.”
If there is a team that could pull off the upset, it would be hard to find a better candidate than St. Ignatius, which has rivaled Bellarmine’s recent success in CCS play.
The Wildcats have won eight straight CCS playoff games, including five in a row by the current group of seniors, and they’ve also shown a flair for the dramatic.
Other than their win over Palma in the first round of the Open playoffs this season, the Wildcats have come from behind in every other CCS win over the past two seasons, including a heart-stopping 25-22 win over Mitty in the Open semifinal round last week.
Almost all of those comebacks have been directed by St. Ignatius quarterback Jack Stinn, who has thrown for 2,152 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
Against Mitty last week, the left-hander marched the St. Ignatius offense 64 yards for the game-winning score, capped by a 15-yard touchdown run from junior running back Elijah Dale with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter.
“They’ve shown a lot of heart and a lot of resolve to make big plays at the end of games,” Janda said.