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SF Preps Football: Sacred Heart Cathedral shuts out one of NorCal’s most productive offenses in first round of playoffs

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Evan Dere (27) of Sacred Heart Cathedral goes for a tackle against Jalen Rios (25) of Live Oak High School during a first-round Central Coast Section playoff game on Nov. 17, 2018, in Morgan Hill, Calif. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

MORGAN HILL — Exactly a year before Sacred Heart Cathedral’s first-round playoff game against Live Oak on Saturday, the Acorns dismantled the Fightin’ Irish run defense, rushing 48 times for 360 yards, unceremoniously bouncing Sacred Heart Cathedral from the playoffs in a first-round game at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

“Last year’s game kept me up many nights,” said head coach Barry McLaughlin. “I’d say I’ve woken up at two, three in the morning, heart palpitating, thinking about Live Oak, when they were running power left on us a year ago at Kezar.”

Thanks to the smoke and ash from the Camp fire in Butte County, Saturday’s first-round Central Coast Section game was moved twice. On Monday, Sacred Heart Cathedral was on a bus, 20 minutes from Live Oak, when the game was postponed for the third time.

After another week of practicing in the school gymnasium, the Irish held the Acorns to half of their seasonal average for yards per game, limiting them to just 16 yards on the ground in a resounding 20-0 win.

“It’s been 365 days since they beat us last year by running the ball,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve broke down more Live Oak film than anyone should, who didn’t know they were going to play Live Oak again.”

Over the course of the extra week of preparation, the Irish couldn’t practice outdoors — the air quality index was consistently over 150, and peaked at 277 earlier this week — and couldn’t practice in pads. That made preparing to take a defensive stand against a physical team bit more difficult than usual.

“When you coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral, practice is always unique. It’s just normal. We just figure it out. That’s what we do,” McLaughlin said. “With the traveling to Westmoor High School in Daly City , and the practice field, which is 30-by-75, which is a great facility, I’m always used to making adjustments, and we just kind of go with it.”

Even without being able to practice in pads, Sacred Heart Cathedral racked up five sacks and eight tackles for loss, but the biggest came on a would-be Acorns punt.

At the end of the second quarter, already up 7-0 on a 31-yard touchdown run by Anthony Heard to open the game, the Irish had Live Oak backed down to its own 14. With Caleb Ojeda — who completed a nine-yard pass and was one of the Acorns’ weapons on offense — back to punt, Kelekolio Mateo shot the gap on the right side and was able to drag Ojeda down, seemingly in the end zone.

Ojeda was instead ruled down at the 2-yard line, and instead of a safety, Sacred Heart Cathedral was set up for an easy touchdown. After a touchdown run by Heard was called back for illegal procedure, quarterback Cian Dowling hit Danilo Ruiz in the front left corner of the end zone for a 7-yard score with under 30 seconds to go before the half.

“I was looking for the roll-out with the punter,” Mateo said. “I really wanted to block the punt, but I’d seen him roll out to the left, and he didn’t punt it, so I went in and made the tackle. I thought I threw him in the end zone. I thought it was a safety right away, but it’s all good. It turned into a touchdown. Even better.”

In the first half, Live Oak managed just 78 yards from scrimmage, while Heard alone rushed for 82 before the break. He would finish with 108 yards on 23 carries with a touchdown, adding a key pass breakup of a would-be 37-yard pass at the start of the second quarter — one of four PBUs on the day for the Irish.

Live Oak quarterback Johnny Singleton went 16-for-31 for 172 yards in his shakiest performance of the season. Although he took five sacks — all in the second half — Singleton wasn’t under much actual pressure for much of the night. Those sacks instead came from exceptional play in the Irish secondary, including Heard and Evan Dere (two pass breakups), which locked down Singleton’s receivers and allowed the Sacred Heart Cathedral defensive line enough time to wear down Live Oak’s offensive line.

“I’ve had a pretty good feel for what Live Oak does,” McLaughlin said. “When we got that match-up, it was easy motivation for the kids.”

Dere — all of 5-foot-5 — iced the game with a strip sack forced fumble with 1:28 left in regulation. After Dere popped the ball loose on third-and-17 at the Live Oak 42, Spencer Goldfein fell on the ball at the 18-yard line.

“I was just trying to make it look like I wasn’t blitzing,” Dere said. “People watch film on my blitzes, but then I just went all-out. [Singleton] didn’t see me. He tried to run away, so I just chased him down. I was feeling the world, man.”

On the Irish’s second play from scrimmage, Dowling hit Levar Watkins Jr. over a leaping Nick Lomanto for a 22-yard touchdown, giving Sacred Heart Cathedral a 20-0 lead. The PAT was tipped and missed wide left. Watkins finished with five catches for 92 yards.

“This group just kind of rolls with it,” said head coach Barry McLaughlin. “Monday was a little goofy, but this group just rolls with it.”

In a year where they’ve seen star running back Heard miss time due to injury, where they’ve had to use two first-time quarterbacks while awaiting the eligibility of transfer Dowling, and after yet another blow — tackle Geoffrey Hester going down — the players’ biggest concern as the bus turned around on Monday wasn’t that they wouldn’t play that day. It was that the bus bypassed Chick-Fil-A on the way back to San Francisco.

“They’re still mad they didn’t get Chick-Fil-A,” McLaughlin said.“Hopefully, their parents take them to Chick-Fil-A, and I’m off the hook.”

Seven days and 21 hours after they were originally supposed to play, the Irish have advanced to the second round of the playoffs, for a date with Sacred Heart Prep. The Gators edged St. Ignatius, 13-7, in early action on Saturday, and feature a stout run defense, something that’s sure to play a big role next week, given Sacred Heart Cathedral’s reliance on Heard.

On Saturday, Dowling went 7-for-10 for 98 yards.

The Gators also feature a physical rushing attack — not unlike Live Oak — rushing for 2,224 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

“I know they’re a physical team,” Mateo said. “They like to run the ball a lot, and they make big-time plays. We need to lock in this week.”

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