KEZAR STADIUM — On the second play of the season against Southern California powerhouse Gardena-Serra, senior E.J. Lahlouh had his ankle rolled up on by his own defensive lineman.
San Mateo-Serra’s top linebacker was set to be a two-way star for the Padres this season, but for eight weeks, he wasn’t quite himself. Then, last week, in a 50-14 thumping of St. Ignatius, he went off for 98 yards on nine carries.
That game, though, was a mess, with 15 penalties called on Serra. Friday night — senior night — Lahlouh was finally the player head coach Patrick Walsh thought he’d have in what’s turned out to be an up-and-down season. Lahlouh came up with a massive hit early to lead to an interception, and rushed six times for 63 yards and a touchdown as the Padres rolled to a 42-0 win over Sacred Heart Cathedral.
“He’s healthy,” Walsh said. “That was kind of always the plan. It’s pretty much taken eight weeks to see the E.J. Lahlouh we expected. He’s healthy again, and when he’s healthy, he’s a hell of a player. He’s one of the great players in the league.”
After injuring his ankle against the Cavaliers, Lahlouh missed just one game, but wasn’t quite himself, until last week. He’s still not 100 percent, but he’s getting there.
“My D-tackle fell on my leg, and from then on, it’s been hell, just trying to get back to normal,” Lahlouh said. [Today] it felt good.”
Lahlouh, one of the Padres’ captains, hit the hole hard on both sides of the ball, and the Irish had no answer to his plunges up the middle, or when he got the ball on a direct snap. His hit on sophomore quarterback Cian Dowling, though, changed the complexion of the game early.
After Lahlouh burst through the line for a 24-yard scoring run with 8:19 to go in the first quarter, Sacred Heart Cathedral put the pressure on the Padres during their next drive. A sack by Rafael Cervantes, a stop by Spencer Goldfein and a key boundary stop ty Evan Dere forced Serra to punt from its own 17. On the first play of the ensuing Irish drive, Lahlouh leveled Dowling as he threw, and the pass fell into the hands of Terence Loville at the Padres’ 25.
Three plays later, quarterback Luke Bottari hit Loville on a quick three-step drop. Loville — who’s been Bottari’s favorite receiver the last two weeks, made a quick stutter step to lose his defender, and took the ball 49 more yards for a 75-yard score with 3:12 left in the opening stanza. The rout was on.
“It was amazing,” Lahlouh said. “Coach Walsh said that he felt like tonight, even though we’re so far in the season, there was a change in the team, which I agree with. Honestly, we haven’t been playing to our expectations. Tonight set us up good for next week.”
On the next drive, Malakai Rango sprinted for an 85-yard touchdown, the start of a 152-all-purpose-yard performance, to make it 21-0.
“It was a stretch play to the right side, I was supposed to go outside, but I saw the hole, and just hit it,” Rango said. “I saw them blitzing outside, so I ran towards the sideline, cut up and it was smooth sailing from there. There was nobody. No safety, no nobody. We knew we had to bring it. We knew we had to put them down.”
Rango scored again with 6:41 to go in the half, taking a flea flicker 26 yards for a touchdown.
Lahlouh added a five-yard score with 4:45 to go in the half, before Rango finished the Padres’ next drive with a cut-back run on the right edgefor a 38-yard touchdown with 2:18 to go before the half.
Serra’s punishing front line held Anthony “Speedy” Heard to just 44 yards in the first half, and 76 rushing yards on 16 carries. The Padres also racked up 9.0 tackles for loss, led by 2.0 apiece from Will Mauer, Rango and Lahlouh.
“I think tonight was almost like a rebirth for us,” Walsh said. “Just by how we played and our behavior on the field, we had zero personal fouls. There was not a lot of what I call ‘dig me’ stuff — look at me, kind of we live in the selfie generation — I was very proud. Tonight was about the Serra Padre brotherhood.”
Dowling tried several times to make something out of nothing, true to his gunslinger reputation remarked upon last week by head coach Barry McLaughlin. Dowling took three sacks — from Lahlouh, Mauer and Jason Venturi — and went just 4-for-11 with an interception. Two of those completions came after halftime, against the second-team defense.
Mauer finished the day with a team-high 10 stops.
Bottari went 9-of-11 for 130 yards, hitting Loville twice for 96 yards.
Since a 37-6 upset by Valley Christian three weeks ago, the Padres have beaten their last two opponents by a combined score of 92-14, and are finally hitting their stride.
“I didn’t expect it to be this late in the season,” Lahlouh said. “I’ll take it. Especially with next week coming up, I’ll take it.”
Walsh maintains Serra isn’t trying to make a statement these last two weeks, headed into the season finale against Mountain View-St. Francis, but the Padres have certainly looked much more like their normal selves.
“Each week is a new week with a new lesson, and something to learn from and get better,” Walsh said. “The ultimate goal, every year, is we want to win the WCAL title. That’s what we do here at Serra. That’s the goal that we set out.”
The Padres are now 6-3 overall and 5-1 in the WCAL. The Lancers are 8-0 overall, and 6-0 in league play. Serra is currently tied with Valley Christian for second.
“It’s been a difficult time, trying to get us all directed and focused,” Walsh said. “The seniors really stepped up tonight, and played the brand of Serra football I feel like has been missing the last few weeks.”