KEZAR STADIUM — Heading into Friday’s Stanfel Cup game between Archbishop Riordan and Sacred Heart Cathedral, junior fullback Danilo Ruiz had just 13 carries on the season for 73 yards.
The job description for the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder was to plow the way for running back Anthony “Speedy” Heard, and the relationship had been fruitful, with Heard rushing for 766 yards on the season. Then, Heard went down with a concussion on a screen pass late in the Irish’s win over Bellarmine Prep last week.
“I had to step up,” Ruiz said. “I was real excited. I don’t usually get a lot of reps at running back. I was hyped. I wanted the ball.”
Ruiz rushed 13 times on Friday for 66 yards, adding 34 yards receiving as Sacred Heart scored 14 points off of turnovers and demolished the Crusaders, 38-0, winning the trophy — named for former Sacred Heart Cathedral and Riordan coach and Riordan alumnus Nick Stanfel — for the third straight year.
“Danilo always wants the ball,” McLaughlin said. “That’s what I love about him. He’s always ready. He wants the ball. He says he wants the ball, so we gave him the ball tonight.”
Heard was on the sideline, coaching Ruiz up, telling him to keep his legs moving, to keep pushing and keep his pad level down. Ruiz had not rushed that many times since preseason.
Irish head coach Barry McLaughlin — himself a Riordan alum and former Riordan coach like Stanfel — won the trophy for his second time as Sacred Heart Cathedral’s skipper. As he came off the field, he cradled the cup like an infant, smiling as he looked at his reflection in the cup.
“I played for it for two years when I was at Riordan,” McLaughlin said. “I coached there for three. Now I’ve been here for 13, and my second as head coach, it’s great. I have to keep my head this week, but it’s great.”
Senior receiver and free safety Levar Watkins started the game with a 70-yard pick six against Azzan Ledbetter on the Crusaders’ second drive — the first of his three touchdowns on the day — weaving his way through traffic in the middle of the field instead of settling and just going to the ground. Watkins knew Ledbetter wanted to go to Marcus Williams early, so shaded over to that side of the field. He saw the whole play unfold in front of him.
“I was seeing a lot of green,” Watkins said. “Freshman year, I tried to run the same way, so I tried to cut back this time to get us a good look. I was just trying to get a touchdown for our defense, our first one. We never score on defense. I wanted to start it up for us.”
He finished with four catches for a game-high 51 yards, and was one of eight receivers to catch passes on the day from quarterback Cian Dowling.
“We wanted to make the first big play,” McLaughlin said. “We didn’t want them to make the first big play and get rolling. That was huge for us.”
Sophomore Evan Branch-Haynes — who served as a tight end/H-back as a freshman last season, and has played defensive tackle and offensive guard this season — got the nod for a two-point conversion, and the 6-foot-2, 270-pounder powered it in.
“I’ve been wanting to run that two-point play for three weeks,” McLaughlin said. “I haven’t coached many players like that.”
An interception by Kelekolio Mateo on the next Riordan drive led to a five-play scoring drive, capped by a 14-yard inside screen to Watkins for a 14-yard score.
Ledbetter, called up two weeks ago from junior varsity, had just 47 yards on 7-for-18 passing with the two interceptions, and rushed for 38 yards on 13 attempts, as the Irish defense tallied three sacks.
Dowling, on the other hand. had his best game since transferring from St. Ignatius, completing 13-of-18 passes for 149 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with a third score — a would-be 17-yard fade to Mateo — going off his receiver’s hands.
“He’s a dynamic player,” McLaughlin said. “He can be a little reckless at times, but he’s a very dynamic player, who’s going to be really good for us.”
On the Irish’s first drive of the second quarter, after a gain of 13 yards by Ruiz, Dowling hit a leaping Watkins, who stumbled into the end zone for a 15-yard score with 10:29 to go before the half, putting the Irish up 21-0.
“I wanted to finish the play,” Watkins said. “I didn’t want to go down.”
After 5-foot-5 Evan Dere dropped Williams for a loss of five, and Branch-Haynes pummeled Ledbetter for a 10-yard sack, Dere came up with a 50-yard sprint to get Sacred Heart Cathedral to the doorstep of the end zone. He finished things off with a two-yard carry, and then a one-yard touchdown to put the Irish up 28-0.
One drive later, Dere rushed for 27 yards off right tackle, planting his foot and turning the corner for his second score with 1:45 to go before halftime. He finished with 76 yards on five carries.
The fourth quarter was played with a running clock, after kicker Dara Keane drove home a 35-yard field goal with 10:23 to go.
The Irish ran for 141 yards on 26 carries, and gave up just one sack, which was a highlight for McLaughlin, a former Utah State offensive lineman who also coaches the Irish line.
“We put this on the O-line, and we’ve come together as a unit after a couple tough outings against Valley Christian and St. Francis,” McLaughlin said. “This group took the challenge. That’s why I coach them. This is a group that’s going to get us where we want to go. They’re finally understanding their techniques in the run scheme.”
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