Riordan’s turnaround based on team concept

Daniel Cannon recognized the improbability of what was happening, the sounds of a junior varsity basketball game filling the Riordan gym behind him after he had changed and left the locker room following another welcome football practice.

The 6-foot-1, 183-pound senior wide receiver-defensive back also plays guard on the Crusaders’ varsity hoops team, and for three years there was not even a threat of the two sports overlapping. But things have changed now at Riordan, where a Crusaders team that did not win a West Catholic Athletic League football game from 2003 to 2005 is now one victory away from the first Central Coast Section title in school history. Top-seeded Riordan (8-3-1) faces No. 2 Live Oak (8-4) for the Medium School Division crown Saturday at 7 p.m. at San Jose City College, and Cannon can appreciate the long road it took to get there.

“If someone had told me three years ago we would be playing for a championship, I would have just looked at them and laughed,” Cannon said. “And then I would have asked them ‘Have you seen us play?’”

Riordan has always had talent, as evidenced by its 2000 WCAL title and a steady collection of athletes moving on to play in college. The problem came once the losses piled up, as players began concentrating on individual statistics rather than the health of the team as a whole. The Crusaders were outscored by a combined total of 730-239 during their three-year conference skid, and new coach Mike Langridge saw the frustration when he took over prior to the 2006 season.

“When we got here it was like football was an individual sport,” Langridge said. “Now guys realize we need everybody.”

The Crusaders ended their WCAL losing streak in Langridge’s first try, an emphatic 34-13 win over Valley Christian. They finished 4-6 in 2006 and took the next step this year, buoyed by camaraderie forged through summer camps, team dinners and a season-opening game against Archbishop Murphy (Wash.) in Las Vegas. That game ended in an overtime loss (though it eventually became a win when Murphy was forced to forfeit) but the trip itself was worth more than the result.

“To see coach organizing all this stuff and taking us to Vegas meant a lot,” said senior wide receiver-defensive back Jordan Wood, who leads the Crusaders with seven interceptions. “It shows he really cares.”

If Langridge started the change in philosophy, the arrival of quarterback Darius Bell sparked a new level of enthusiasm on the field. A transfer from Marin Catholic of Kentfield, Bell earned Riordan’s starting job last year and has developed into the perfect triggerman for Langridge’s spread offense. The senior led the WCAL in passing yardage with 1,285, and has 2,515 yards and 23 touchdowns overall. He has been at his best in the playoffs, breaking the school record for passing yards in a game with 367 in a 44-16 win over Terra Nova in the opener and following up with a 366-yard, four touchdown game in last week’s 48-20 semifinal victory over Pioneer of San Jose. Cannon has emerged as his primary target, and broke the WCAL records for catches (38) and receiving yards (740) during the six-game league season.

“Darius is just unbelievable right now, — he’s as locked in as anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Langridge, who thinks his team still has an outside chance to reach the CIF state title game. “And like all our guys, his focus right now is just winning that CCS championship.”

CCS Medium School championship

At San Jose City College, 7 p.m.

» SATURDAY: No. 1 Riordan (8-3-1) vs. No. 2 Live Oak (8-4), 7 p.m.

melliser@examiner.com

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