By Jeremy Balan
SAN JOSE – Early in the fourth quarter of the Central Coast Section Open Division football championship on Friday night at San Jose City College, St. Ignatius senior Albert Waters came off the field and uttered a deep grunt in frustration.
The Wildcats were trailing top-seeded Bellarmine 7-0, but fellow senior Denis Shanagher turned to Waters and calmly said, “It’s all right. We have them right where we want them.”
Shanagher was confident for good reason, as the sixth-seeded Wildcats added another notch to their already-crowded belt of come-from-behind CCS playoff victories with a 13-10 overtime win over the top-seeded Bells.
St. Ignatius evened the score midway through the fourth quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Elijah Dale. Then, after Bellarmine settled for a field goal in the first round of overtime, Dale scored on the SI’s first play in the extra period to give the Wildcats their first CCS Open championship in school history and second straight section title.
Dale took a handoff from quarterback Jack Stinn, found an opening in the left side of the Bellarmine defense, then bounced toward the left-hand sideline and jumped past a defender as he crossed the goal line.
“Everyone just sealed their guy . . . I just took the hole. It was a huge hole and anyone could have ran it through,” Dale said.
Dale finished with a team-high 78 yards on 12 carries and his two scores were the difference in the game, but the St. Ignatius defense set the table.
After Dale’s first score tied the game, Bellarmine (11-2) worked its way down the field to the St. Ignatius 8-yard line with just under 3 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Bellarmine quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels took the first carry on first and goal to the SI 6-yard line, then standout running back Kenneth Olugbode advanced the ball to the 4 on second down. Carta-Samuels got the call again on on third down, but was met by senior defensive lineman August Peters, who stopped the Vanderbilt-bound quarterback well short of the end zone at the 3-yard line.
Facing fourth and goal with 1:17 remaining in the game, Bellarmine head coach Mike Janda elected not to kick a short, go-ahead field goal (the Bells had missed a 36-yard field goal late in the second quarter).
“We really felt like they could drive the ball in,” Janda said. “There’s a lot of things that could happen [with a field goal attempt] and we had the confidence we could get the yards.”
Instead of a field goal try, Olugbode took a toss from Carta-Samuels and cut into the teeth of the St. Ignatius defensive line. Senior defensive lineman Kevin Sullivan got to Olugbode first and slowed him down with an arm tackle, but could not bring him down. Still leaning forward, Olugbode was met next by senior linebacker Noah Bull inches away from the goal line and Bull didn’t give another inch, as Olugbode hit the turf with the nose of the football resting just short, turning the ball over to the Wildcats with 1:10 remaining. (Correction: We’ve received several calls and e-mails disputing our description of this play. Multiple players told the reporter on the field that Bull made the tackle just short of the goal line. Upon reviewing the replay, Sullivan did not miss the tackle, but in fact made the tackle on his own.)
“We’ve just been growing all year,” Bull said. “We know the defense has to step up to win games, because the offense puts points on the board . . . We just dug deep inside of ourselves.”
The Wildcats (10-3) ran three conservative rushing plays just to get out of the shadow of their own end zone and wound out the rest of regulation time, but the Bells lost the ensuing coin toss and got an immediate opportunity to score again.
High school overtime gives each team an opportunity to score from the opponent’s 10-yard line and Carta-Samuels took the first carry of the extra period to the St. Ignatius 4. Olugbode took the next carry to the SI 2-yard line – then, the Bells lost composure. Two straight false-start penalties pushed Bellarmine back to the 12-yard line, then Carta-Samuels hit Olugbode with a pass to advance the ball to the 4 again.
This time, Janda elected to kick a field goal, and junior Grant Bush nailed a 20-yarder to give the Bells a 10-7 lead and set up Dale’s game-winning score.
After a touchdown on the first possession of the game, where Bellarmine ate up nearly 8 minutes of game time on a 14-play, 75-yard scoring drive, it appeared the contest would be a repeat of the Bells’ 35-28 regular-season win over the St. Ignatius.
In that game late in October, St. Ignatius could not stop the Bells double-wing rushing attack in the final minutes and Bellarmine wound down the final 3:56 of game time while clinging to a one-score lead to seal the victory.
But the initial score ended up being Bellarmine’s only touchdown and the Wildcats limited the Bells to just 246 yards of total offense.
“I can’t put it into words,” Peters said. “Last year, we had a similar experience. We got gashed by [Sacred Heart Cathedral] in the regular season, then turned it on in the championship. We knew we could do it and there’s too much will on this team not to come away with a win. We’re pretty good at making it dramatic.”
Part of the Bells’ offensive struggles were undoubtedly due to the loss of standout senior running back Joey Sanfilippo, who left the game in the first quarter with a calf injury and never returned. The San Jose Mercury News also reported before the game that the Bells suspended four players for the title game.
“We’re a full team and when one player goes down and another player is not able to play, another guy has to step up,” Janda said. “I thought our guys battled their hearts out – I thought they did it the whole game. We just came up a little short tonight.”
The Wildcats had struggles of their own offensively until the fourth quarter.
In their four possessions in the first three quarters, three went into Bellarmine territory, but none led to points. Two drives ended with missed field goals and another was stalled after a fake punt that would have resulted in a first down was negated by a penalty.
That all changed when the Wildcats got the ball on their own 29-yard line with 11:31 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Stinn, who has orchestrated several go-ahead scoring drives in his varsity career, completed one pass to receiver Joe Lang on the drive, but mostly took a back seat to Dale. The junior had six carries for 40 yards on the game-tying scoring drive and capped it with a 1-yard score with 6:49 remaining.
Stinn lacked the pinpoint accuracy he displayed in previous weeks, but still threw for 119 yards on 6-of-13 passing.
“They stayed with it,” said St. Ignatius head coach John Regalia. “We stayed in the moment and we stayed in each play. Our guys just kept competing.”
The win ended a six-game Bellarmine win streak in the series between the two teams and makes the Wildcats eligible for a CIF Regional Bowl Game, but for now, the Wildcats will relish being the best team in the Central Coast Section.
“Right now, we’re living in the moment,” Regalia said. “Our moment was this week, preparing for a great team in Bellarmine . . . Now we’re in the moment, coming out on top in a great game.”
B: 4:05 – K.J. Carta-Samuels 2-yard run (Grant Bush kick)
SI: 6:49 – Elijah Dale 1-yard run (Michael Capitolo kick)
B: Bush 20-yard field goal
SI: Dale 10-yard run