Central Catholic running back Aiden Taylor, with a Bullard defender wrapped around him, dives and extends the ball over the goal line for a touchdown during Friday's victory in the CIF State Northern California Division 2-AA regional bowl. (Samantha Schmidt)

'Great place to be': Central Catholic will play Mater Dei Catholic in state final

James Burns

Roger Canepa pressed the CIF State Northern California Division 2-AA championship plaque to the sky over and over again for the home crowd, reveling in the moment.

Lingering in the moment.

It's been a long, tough road back for the Central Catholic Raiders, a four-time CIF State champion forced to slug it out against larger schools, but with a thrill-by-the-minute victory over Bullard (9-5), they're back in a state final.

"I'm just blessed. This is a great place to be," Canepa said following the 44-41 win. "It's fun to be back. There aren't many of us left."

Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa accepts the plaque awarded to the champion of the CIF State Northern California Division 2-AA regional bowl. (Samantha Schmidt)

Aiden Taylor rushed for 288 yards, returned a kickoff nearly 70 yards to set up another score, and recorded a sack as the Raiders (13-1) led the Division 2-AA bowl from whistle to whistle. Central Catholic will travel to Mission Viejo's Saddleback College next Friday to play Mater Dei Catholic for its fifth state title and first since 2015.

After the game, Canepa, the architect of the Raiders' four consecutive state titles from 2012-2015, encouraged his team to enjoy the victory, but cautioned them that work would resume Monday.

These Raiders, one of the few teams left standing in California, will play a 15th and final game.

"When we won four in a row, I thought, 'Oh, we'll be back.' They (Bullard) played hard and we couldn't get a stop, but we we did what we do. We ran the ball, made some great passes when we had to, and we stuck together," Canepa said. "It's not easy."

Central Catholic's victory was delivered via Pony Express, whose performance must Friday ranks among the greatest individual efforts in school history. Bullard simply couldn't tackle the Raiders' featured running back. Taylor had seven carries of 10 or more yards. Perhaps more importantly to Central Catholic fans, he was only stopped behind the line of scrimmage once.

Pony presses forward, and so will his Raiders.

"Aiden, he's a playmaker. Julian (Lopez) and him ... you don't get here without a line," Canepa said. "It was awesome. One of the better performances I've seen."

Taylor is poised to join elite company on Friday at Saddleback College. He is fast-approaching 2,000 rushing yards, a feat that hasn't been accomplished in the FrontRowPreps.com region since Oakdale's Will Semone, a player with Central roots, set a region record with 2,851 yards.

Taylor has 1,943 yards and 37 touchdowns, and counting.

"This, personally, means a lot to me," Taylor said of securing a regional title and state bowl berth in the final home game of his career. "I've been playing on this field since I was 6 years old. I grew up on it pretty much. It means a lot to go out this way with a victory and the performance I was able to give."

Central Catholic scored the game's first 14 points to take the suspense out of the regional final early. The Raiders pressured Bullard's record-setting quarterback Roland Russo, who missed on his first three throws, including an interception, and was sacked four times, including twice by four-year varsity standout Jericho Machado.

Bullard, the Central Section Division II champion, showed its mettle, though. Russo found his rhythm in the second quarter, engineering two scoring drives to give the Knights some hope going into the locker room. At one point, he completed seven consecutive passes, erasing his erratic start.

Russo fired five touchdown passes in total, including four in a wild second half comeback. When Julian Lopez (20 carries, 99 yards, two TDs) plowed in from the 1-yard line with 1:42 left in the third quarter Central Catholic's lead seemed insurmountable. The Raiders led 35-13, controlled the clock and field position, and yet to be stopped by Bullard.

Easy money, right? Wrong.

Russo and the Knights found their way back into the game with deep routes, terrorizing the Raiders' secondary with an army of receivers. He connected with Fresno State commit Jayden Davis on a 29-yard strike to end the third quarter. Russo sparked a late-charge with a 34-yard pitch to Daizon Allen and then led Davis into space for a 67-yard scoring strike to make it 41-34.

After Anthony Wildenberg's 32-yard field goal, Russo marched the Knights down the field for a quick score. His 4-yard touchdown pass to Wendell Ware made it 44-41 with less than 90 seconds left in the game.

However, Bullard's onside kick squirreled out of bounds, setting up Taylor's most important run of the evening. He appeared to be bottled up in the backfield, but he spun out of the tackle and finished with a 10-yard run, staying in bounds.

Central Catholic spent the next two plays in victory formation.

"It was a lot of heart. My linemen continued to block for me," Taylor said. "We were able to make plays happen. If they continue blocking and we spin out ... we stay up. That's my mentality the whole time — you can't take me down, and if you do, you got lucky. I'm trying to stay up and that's my mentality running the whole time."