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The Sacred Heart Cathedral football team celebrates its Northern Regional Championship victory. (Ethan Kassel/Special to The Examiner)

By Ethan Kassel

Special to The Examiner

The Sacred Heart football team lost its first five games of the season. Less than two months later, the Fightin’ Irish are “big steppin’” their way to a state championship game.

And when we say “big steppin’,” we’re talking about the team’s signature celebratory dance. Fact is, “big steppin’” — a step tied to a popular local rap song — has become a go-to celebration for a lot of Bay Area athletes. The Warriors have employed the moves to acknowledge big plays. And Niners’ wide receiver Deebo Samuel broke it out after a touchdown against the Rams on Monday Night Football. Perhaps the player most commonly associated with the dance is Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon, an East Bay native whose cousin, Jerry Mixon Jr., stars for Sacred Heart.

The dance was the creation of Jordan Gomes, a 2012 Sacred Heart Cathedral graduate who played on the school’s football team and performs by the stage name “Stunnaman02.” He cheered for the Fightin’ Irish during their CCS Championship win over Christopher and was spotted at Saturday night’s Northern California Division 4-A Championship victory over Chico at Kezar Stadium. After both wins, Gomes joined the coaches and players as the song blasted from a portable speaker. The entire team danced in a diverse mix of inner city kids who hail from the Bayview District and descendants of Irish and Italian families who have called San Francisco home for over a century.

“To have an alum that can hype us up is great,” quarterback Ray-John Spears said, of Gomes.

The jubilant scenes are a stark contrast from where Sacred Heart Cathedral stood just over a month ago. With close losses in four of their first five games, followed by back-to-back blowout defeats at the hands of Riordan and Serra, coach Barry McLaughlin’s future with the program was uncertain. Hopes of any sort of playoff run looked bleak.

Since then, they’ve rattled off five straight wins, evening their overall record at 7-7. A win over Mitty, coupled with Riordan’s season-ending loss to Valley Christian, earned the Fightin’ Irish a playoff berth due to their strength of schedule. They shut out Leigh to open the CCS Division III Playoffs, blew out Mountain View in the semifinals (in a game that finished with a running clock) and pulled away from Christopher in the second half to win their first section crown since 2008.

“Once we scored on Mitty and blocked a punt, we were rolling,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin, much like his players, doesn’t hide his emotions. When things are going well, the Sacred Heart Cathedral sideline is a jubilant place. Spears’ bright smile, accompanied by his electrifying play, permeates the entire team. Considered a multi-sport prodigy as a youngster, Spears mainly focused on basketball across his first three years at SHC, including a 35-point performance in the 2020 Bruce-Mahoney Game to end a four-year losing streak in the marquee matchup. He made occasional cameos at receiver in prior seasons, but after three-year starting quarterback Cian Dowling graduated in the spring, McLaughlin entrusted him with the keys to the offense.

“It just took some time for him to get comfortable,” McLaughlin said. “After the bye week, he showed some assertiveness and confidence. His arm strength and ability to throw from different angles is just crazy.”

Though he split snaps with sophomore and future starter Aidan McGrath in early games and missed a loss to St. Francis, Spears has been a perfect representation of the team, overcoming early-season mistakes that had offset his dynamic ability throughout the rocky start to the campaign.

“We just had to trust in each other and never hold our heads down,” Spears said. “No matter what, we all love each other at the end of the day.”

That love among teammates is evident during the postgame celebrations, and it’s been evident with fan support as well. With its 10,000 seats, Kezar can make even decent-sized crowds look small. Fan support for a program that has seen minimal championship success has often lacked, save for crosstown rivalry games. Though SHC fans rarely fill the seats, they certainly made their presence felt online in recent years, often criticizing McLaughlin and the rest of the coaching staff. Saturday night’s crowd made for a scene typically only reserved for the Bruce-Mahoney, with parking nearly impossible to find within a mile of the stadium.

“It’s great bringing our school here for the first time,” Mixon Jr. said.

When Northview-Covina makes the trip up north for Saturday’s CIF Division 4-A Championship, set to kick off at 6 p.m., the Irish expect to have another boisterous crowd filling the home side at Kezar. If SHC captures its first state title in program history, it’s obvious how the players will choose to celebrate.

Ethan Kassel is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.