The Central Catholic Raiders quickly realized, against the fleet Mater Dei Catholic Crusaders, that they needed to be close to perfect to claim their fifth CIF state title.
The Raiders weren’t close to perfect.
Mater Dei rode a parade of major pass plays downfield to a 27-7 lead Friday night, then held off Central Catholic’s comeback to win 34-25 for the state Division II-A championship at Saddleback College.
Central Catholic senior Nolan Croasdale accepted the runner-up trophy, the hardware the Raiders did not want on their bus for the long ride home.
The Raiders (13-2) made too many mistakes, including a breakdown of their normally reliable kicking game, that doomed them against a predictably lethal opponent.
“I don’t think we played our best game. They beat us,” assessed coach Roger Canepa after his team’s first appearance in a D-II state final. “We put ourselves in bad spots and dug ourselves some holes.”
Illustrating the Raiders’ frustration was senior running back and linebacker Aiden “Pony” Taylor – the team’s nerve-center – sitting on the bench squinting in pain. Taylor (17 carries, 190 yards, 2 touchdowns) missed most of the second half after he was poked in the eye.
Taylor’s pulsating 79-yard touchdown burst, on a risky 4th-and-1, closed Central Catholic’s margin to a manageable 27-19 early in the second half. But that turned out to be his final carry – he was injured on defense --and the Raiders could not recover from their sixth halftime deficit.
“He (Taylor) just couldn’t go back in the game,” Canepa said. “He couldn’t see.”
Julian Lopez, Taylor’s 225-pound running mate, responded to a heavier workload. He finished with two touchdowns and 112 yards on 24 carries, most of them into eight-man or even nine-man fronts.
Lopez’s 7-yard rugby-scrum push ended a 19-play 90-yard march and closed the deficit to 34-25 with 5:31 left. But moments later, he was stopped cold on a 2-point try Canepa regretted.
“Probably should have kicked, but we already had one blocked,” he said.
Canepa referred to the blocked PAT after Taylor’s touchdown dash, one of several special-teams errors. An errant punt snap set up Mater Dei with a short-field touchdown drive, resulting in Central Catholic’s 27-7 deficit. Another off-target snap on a PAT was costly late in the half.
Mater Dei (13-0) shocked Central Catholic with the speed of its wide receivers. Quarterback Domonic Nankil (13 of 21, 295 yards, TD) didn’t bother with first downs or the running game. He threw deep, effectively, from the opening snap. CC trailed less than a minute into the game but quickly answered, encouraged by a 28-yard scramble by sophomore quarterback Tyler Paul Wentworth, to tie 7-7.
The Raiders’ secondary couldn’t cover 6-foot-1 Jerry McClure (5 catches, 101 yards), Cruz Estrada (3 catches, 108 yards) and Surahz Buncom (3 catches 55 yards), who often snared Nankil’s passes in stride. The Crusaders took the lead to stay 13-7 on an 18-yard run, the first of two TDs by Nico Mosley.
Wentworth was intercepted twice, and both hurt. A Raider drive was countered when Mater Dei sophomore Isahia Buxton intercepted, angled to his left, picked up blockers and raced past the Central Catholic bench for an 87-yard pick-six.
Central Catholic’s 27-13 halftime deficit would have worsened, if not for a spectacular defensive play by Croasdale. From behind, he batted the ball away from Estrada one step before Estrada finished a 45-yard catch-and-run from Nankil. Estrada then kicked the ball out of the end zone for a touchback.
Wentworth, pressured by the pass rush as Central Catholic fell behind, completed only five passes for 42 yards. Then again, Central Catholic established a lopsided time-of-possession advantage, only to negate it with turnovers. Mater Dei outgained the Raiders 360-287.
“They (Mater Dei) were athletic. They put too much heat (on Wentworth),” Canepa said. “It wasn’t like our kids gave up. We played to the end. We just couldn’t stop them.”
So ended another emotional post-season run by Central Catholic, the Valley Oak League, Sac-Joaquin Section (D-II) and CIF regional champion. Taylor topped the 2,000-yard mark in rushing and finished with 38 touchdowns.
That his season ended with a finger in the eye said it all for the Raiders.