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Serra football fulfills the hype, seeks more glory

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Serra football won its second straight Central Coast Section Open Division II Championship on Saturday. (Ethan Kassel/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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For decades, Serra football has been surrounded by buzz. People took notice when the Padres came to town. Mentioning the team’s name instantly evoked images of Lynn Swann and Tom Brady in blue and gold.

However, the on-field results didn’t always reflect the name recognition for many years. In the program’s first 60 seasons, the team won just one section championship.

Until this year, the Padres hadn’t won an outright WCAL title since 1969.

Last weekend marked a second straight Central Coast Section Open Division II Championship for the Padres and a third in the last five years. Serra has established a pedigree of recent success against league rivals as well: 12 straight wins over St. Ignatius, five straight over Mitty and four over St. Francis, including Saturday’s 31-30 thriller in the title game.

That momentum doesn’t look like it’s slowing anytime soon. Sure, every successful team has a few star players, but one of the biggest driving forces behind Serra’s success has been its depth.

Now-graduated quarterback Leki Nunn averaged 258.6 all-purpose yards per game on last year’s team, which tied for the league title and advanced to a state championship game. Even with the graduation of one of the program’s most accomplished players of all-time, this year’s team has furthered last year’s success.

“There’s a lot of tradition that we’ve been able to build on over time,” said head coach Patrick Walsh. “A lot of disappointments, a lot of struggles, a lot of successes to build on.”

Deep family ties certainly helps. Nunn’s younger brother, Patrick, is a senior on this year’s team. But the Washington State-bound senior is just one of an incredibly deep receiving core. Columbia commit Chris Park and all-time Serra receptions leader Shane Villaroman have been giving opposing defenses fits all year. Quarterback Luke Bottari was clinical in Saturday’s victory, completing 30 of 35 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns. Linebacker E.J. Lahlouh is also a junior, and kicker Damon Lewis, who has drilled three field goals from over 40 yards on the season, is just a sophomore, as is defensive back Nate Sanchez.

Injuries prompted the rise of sophomore defensive end Nusi Malani to the varsity roster, and he’s looked ready for the big stage in three playoff wins.

Serra’s coaching staff has been vital to the program’s development. Defensive coordinator Chris Vasseur, offensive coordinator Steven Lo and special teams coach Ron Ortiz have been fundamental in every step of the journey. On Saturday, Ortiz called for a fake punt that turned into a 37-yard gain and eventually led to a 43-yard Lewis field goal.

“High school coaching is a hobby in California for most programs, whereas it’s a full-time job in places like Texas” said Walsh. “Thankfully, we’ve been able to assemble a staff that hasn’t had a lot of turnover in the past five or six years.”

If the Serra community is going to see its team through to another state title game, it’ll be on the road. Last year, the Padres advanced to the Division 2-AA State Championship by traveling to Fresno County and defeating Sanger, Tom Flores’ alma mater. This year, the Padres will travel even further to take on Tulare Union. The Tribe are 13-0 behind 70 touchdowns from UCLA-bound running back Kazmeir Allen and 39 passing touchdowns from junior quarterback Nathan Lamb.

A win over Tulare Union would send the Padres to Sacramento for a second-straight state championship game. Last year, they lost to Sierra Canyon in a 42-40 shootout.

Regardless of how the remainder of this season plays out, Serra has established that these title runs won’t just be a flash in the pan. Expect the Padres to be at the forefront of Bay Area football for a long time.

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

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