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Bruce-Mahoney game doubles as conference opener for Sacred Heart Cathedral, Saint Ignatius

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Barry McLaughlin (Courtesy SHC Athletics)
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Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Ignatius will renew the oldest high school rivalry west of the Mississippi River on the gridiron tonight. The showdown will feature the usual elements: A huge crowd at Kezar Stadium on a cold San Francisco night.

Other than that, the Irish are hoping for a break from tradition. SHC hasn’t won the game since 2011, and the 2011-12 school year was the last time the Irish claimed the trophy, which is awarded to the combined winner of their football, basketball and baseball games. St. Ignatius has claimed the trophy, which is named for alumni of the two schools who perished in World War II, 50 of the 70 times the schools have battled.

Under first-year head coach Barry McLaughlin, the program is 3-0 for the first time since 2014 and is entering the storied rivalry with St. Ignatius unbeaten for the first time since 2007. Tonight will also be the first time the Bruce-Mahoney is played as a conference opener despite the Fightin’ Irish playing in the WCAL since 2008.

“I’m trying to keep it business as usual, but there’s the extra buzz surrounding it,” McLaughlin said. “We’d be excited no matter what for a league opener, but the Bruce-Mahoney adds a little more.”

While some teams take weeks or even a full season to adjust to a new head coach, the Irish had a much quicker transition period. In the opener against Fernley, SHC battled back from a pair of two-score deficits, ultimately winning 35-26.

“The Fernley game was against a very unfamiliar opponent, and a very good one at that,” McLaughlin said. “To have the ability to fall behind, come back, fall behind and then finally have the ability to make the plays to win was a really big part in the building process of this team.”

Since the Fernley game, the Irish have rolled past Justin-Siena and Homestead, and have done so with key players quickly accepting their roles.

It’s rare to see pocket passers in high school, but Will Irons has taken over the quarterback duties in his senior year and has completed 44 of 82 passes for 689 yards and 10 touchdowns. Anthony Heard, Areon Mitchell and Ronan Orford have all been key receiving targets. Heard comes out of the backfield as a rushing threat but has shown good hands as well, accounting for 481 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns, three receiving and four rushing. Orford is also the team’s kicker and Mitchell starts in the secondary on defense.

Mitchell is one of just a handful of two-way starters despite being on a roster that has only 29 players. The coaching staff manages the small roster by deploying most players as starters on one side and second-stringers on the other.

“The small roster is definitely a challenge, but I played at Riordan in the mid-to-late 90s, so this was the normal roster size around then,” said McLaughlin. “You have to keep the kids healthy and keep them fresh. Every guy on the roster has a role, everyone’s getting coached, there’s no guy that can hide in drill work.”

For context, St. Ignatius has 50 players on its roster. The Wildcats are 1-2, but the the two losses came to veritable powerhouses in 3-0 Marin Catholic and defending state champion Campolindo. Their win was a grueling defensive battle after a long bus trip to Clovis East.

“What jumps out when you see [St. Ignatius] is that they play very hard, execute well and play within their schemes,” said McLaughlin. You have to match their effort level, just like with every opponent, and we have to execute.”

Rather than a couple of standouts, St. Ignatius has a team full of players who can contribute.

Quarterback Charlie Katz has weapons all over in Finn Burke, Beau Sidwell and David Woodruff.

Henri Vatinel can do damage at running back, and junior Mark Biggins established himself as a bruiser out of the backfield during his sophomore year.

Special teams duties are shared between two seniors, Dearan Roche and Claire Dworsky. Last year, Dworsky became the first female player in St. Ignatius football history.

The winner of tonight’s contest, which is set to kick off at 7 p.m., will have a chance to clinch the trophy when the schools meet in basketball on January 12. Should they split, the baseball game, scheduled for March 17, will decide the winner.

Fans unable to attend Friday’s game will be able to tune in via online streaming service, thecube.com.

Prep Focus writer Ethan Kassel covers high school sports throughout the Bay Area. Contact him if you have a story tip, game to watch or player to track by emailing him at ethankassel@gmail.com.

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