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Sacred Heart Cathedral falls in defensive struggle against Sacred Heart Prep

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Levar Watkins Jr. (kneeling) is consoled by Sacred Heart Cathedral running back Anthony Heard on Saturday, Nov. 24, after a playoff loss to Sacred Heart Prep. (Ethan Kassel / S.F. Examiner)

ATHERTON — Facing Sacred Heart Prep’s defense would have been tough enough for the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish, but with the right side of the offensive line out for Saturday’s Central Coast Section Open Division III Semifinal, it was all but impossible to run the ball in a season-ending 19-7 defeat.

In fact, the second-seeded Gators typically only needed to rush three men to disrupt the SHC offense, allowing just 10 rushing yards on the day and taking control of the game with two third-quarter touchdowns.

An Irish fumble on the opening play of the third quarter set up a go-ahead four-yard touchdown run by Tevita Moimoi, and after a three-and-out, one of the two passes completed on the day by Sacred Heart Prep (11-1) allowed the hosts to make it a two-score lead. Moimoi took the snap from the wildcat formation, handed off to quarterback Raymond Price III and cut to the left side, hauling in the pass as part of a 47-yard catch-and-run. The trick play set up a 1-yard touchdown run by John Willard, and with how tough the SHP defense was, it made the lead all but insurmountable.

“They’re a very disciplined team,” said SHC running back Anthony Heard, who was held to just 14 rushing yards. “Off the first movement, they’re shooting the gaps, and it’s hard to get around them.”

Sacred Heart Cathedral (6-6) was completely disabled in the running game, yet still had life thanks to an inspired performance from sophomore quarterback Cian Dowling. Despite rarely having more than a few seconds in the pocket, Dowling managed to throw for 222 yards on 18-for-33 passing, and his 11-yard score to Kelekolio Mateo with 46 seconds left in the second quarter gave the Irish a one-point halftime lead despite being largely dominated by the Gators from the start.

SHP started things off with a 17-play, 67-yard drive that spanned more than eight minutes, but was held out of the end zone and forced to settle for a 30-yard Ronan Donnelly field goal. A holding penalty led to a three-and-out, forcing the Irish to punt from their own end zone, but once again, the defense stood tall, leaving the Gators with another Donnelly field goal, this one from 32 yards.

“Our defense has usually been dominant this year,” said Irish head coach Barry McLaughlin. “Even when they aren’t, they bend but don’t break.”

The rest of the second quarter would be the most prolific time for the sixth-seeded Irish. Dowling scrambled for a 14-yard gain and then found LeVar Watkins Jr. (4 catches for 101 yards) on a chaotic play, avoiding a sack and then connecting with the star receiver for a leaping grab and a 32-yard gain. Watkins fumbled at the end of the play, but Sacred Heart Cathedral managed to recover the loose ball. However, there was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of the zany play, bumping the offense back to the 35, and after an intentional grounding penalty, the Irish were forced to punt.

A three-and-out put the ball right back in the hands of the Irish with 1:35 left in the half, and they needed less than a minute to score. Dowling found Watkins for a 23-yard gain and then connected with Mateo for gains of six and 12 yards. The pair would hook up again two plays later as Dowling scrambled to his left and heaved up a pass that looked at first like he was just trying to escape traffic, but a wide-open Mateo hauled it in at the front corner of the end zone for a short-lived lead.

“He’s a gamer, and he has a lot to learn,” McLaughlin said of his sophomore quarterback. “He kept plays alive and he gave us a chance.”

When Watkins broke up a Hail Mary in the end zone to preserve the advantage going into the break, it seemed like all momentum sat with the Fightin’ Irish, but the fumble on the first play of the third quarter and the absences of sophomore linemen Evan Branch-Haynes and Geoffrey Hester were too much to overcome.

It’s the end of the line for Watkins, Mateo, Evan Dere, linemen Spencer Goldfein and Noah Noa and Heard. Still, Heard made a positive impression, not only on the SHP coaches who were tasked with stopping him, but also on coaches from Brown, who were scouting the game and were seen speaking with Heard following the contest.

“We stuck together as a team,” said Heard. “This is the strongest group of kids I’ve ever been around.”

McLaughlin also spoke glowingly of the group he’s come to know in his first two years at Sacred Heart Cathedral, saying, “this group stuck with it when a lot of dudes bailed. They’ve laid a foundation that’s going to take it to the next level.”

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