ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN HIGH SCHOOL — Lifting the Stanfel Cup over his head, Riordan senior lineman Gabe Martin let out a loud scream, as his teammates jumped up and down, and the marching band played.
It was an eruption not just for the team’s first rivalry win over Sacred Heart Cathedral since 2015 (their last WCAL win in regulation), but for the nearly two years the Crusaders have gone without a league win, and for the five years spent without an on-campus field.
Not only did Riordan — a perennial doormat with just 23 wins in the previous nine seasons — open its new, $3.2 million four-sport facility with a 44-7 win, but they did it with a running clock. Led by career days from seniors Ray Russell and Lavaka Kefu, the Crusaders snapped a seven-game losing streak and gave the program something it hasn’t had in a decade: Hope.
The facility — officially Mayer Family Field at the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Athletic Complex — began as the idea of former coaches Mark Mino and Steve Herrera after the 2012 season. After several stops and starts, Mike Mayer — a former Riordan student who used to watch his brothers play football for the Crusaders while drinking beer in the stands at Kezar Stadium, before he made his money in oil and on Wall Street — and his brother Stephen donated a $500,000 challenge grant.
That grant helped kickstart the fundraising, allowing Riordan to update the baseball/soccer/lacrosse/football/track facility for the first time in 70 years.
“It means a lot for the future of the school. Our motto now is ‘Riordan Rising,’ and we are rising,” said Mayer.
Though Saturday’s game wasn’t the first at the field — the Crusaders lost the soft open a week ago to St. Francis — it did mark the first win on campus since Oct. 26, 2013, also against Sacred Heart Cathedral.
“I remember seeing potholes, I remember seeing divots, baseballs, ants, bugs, but I knew that something would come out of it,” Martin said of his first time seeing the field, when he came on campus as a freshman. Three weeks ago, as he was coming into the parking lot around the back on a Monday morning, he caught sight of the finished turf. “I’m just standing there in awe, about to be late for class, like, ‘It’s here.’”
On Saturday, Martin helped plow the way for 300 rushing yards, as Riordan (3-7, 1-6 in WCAL) bullied the Irish (0-10, 0-7 in WCAL) despite not having the services of star running back Fazon Ruth, whose nagging back injury finally sidelined him just 15 yards short of 1,000 on the season.
Instead, Modeste turned to senior inside linebacker Lavaka Kefu, who rushed a career-high 13 times for 157 yards and three touchdowns, while adding six tackles, 1.0 sack and a pass breakup.
“We always wanted to get him more involved in the offense, but when you’re playing middle linebacker, that’s a really tough double, and when you’re playing in the WCAL, inside linebacker, it makes it even more tough,” Modeste said. “It was really great to have him have that opportunity today, playing in the backfield with his brother.”
Kefu’s younger brother, hulking fullback and defensive tackle Kemoe’atu Kefu, rushed five times for 20 yards, while racking up five tackles, including parts of two sacks, while laying some punishing blocks of his own.
”He’s way bigger than me, so I just tell him to get in front of me, and I’m going to run right behind you,” Lavaka said.
The last time Riordan won a WCAL game was in 2017, a 26-20 victory over St. Ignatius, and they got off to a hot start on Saturday with an eight-play drive that ended with a nine-yard Lavaka Kefu plunge with 4:21 to go in the first quarter
A sack by Lavaka Kefu and junior Douglas Pineda (four tackles, 1.5 sacks) brought up a three-and-out on the Irish’s second possession, but just as the Crusaders got going on their next drive, a strip by Sacred Heart Cathedral sophomore Bruce Uperesa gave the Irish a chance. Once again, the Riordan defense was relentless, with the Kefu brothers flushing Sacred Heart Cathedral quarterback Cian Dowling from the pocket on second down, and Lavaka Kefu and Russell teaming up for a sack one play later.
An Irish punt landed in the hands of Aden Jackson, who just three weeks ago, was being taken off the field on a stretcher. He ripped off an 80-yard return down the home sideline with 11:01 to go before the half to put the Crusaders up 13-0, and setting off the Riordan band, which dusted off its marching outfits for a football game for the first time in years.
A Sacred Heart Cathedral fumble led to a five-play Crusaders scoring drive, capped by a 31-yard scoring scamper by Jaren Estillore with 7:17 to go before the half. Like Lavaka Kefu, Estillore — a 5-foot-8, 160-pound sophomore — had a big day on both sides of the ball, rushing for 63 yards on six carries while breaking up two passes and making two tackles, including half a sack.
Lavaka Kefu scored his second touchdown of the day on a weaving, 76-yard score with 4:01 to go before the half, and despite a 45-yard kickoff return by Uperesa on the ensuing kick, the Irish went three-and-out, with Dowling seeing his fourth-and-five pass at the Riordan 20 broken up by senior Massimo Hoffmann to stifle what was Sacred Heart Cathedral’s best scoring chance to that point.
The Irish and Crusaders traded sacks for much of the third quarter, with Riordan breaking the spell with a 29-yard Roberto Alas field goal with 4:04 to go in the third.
Sacred Heart Cathedral got on the board with two big passes from Dowling, who went 10-for-23 on the day for 110 yards. After taking a sack by Russell and Kemoe’Atu Kefu — one of seven on the day for Riordan — Dowling found Tyrice Ivy Jr. for 41 yards and then hit Ivy again on a middle screen for an 11-yard score with 2:26 to go in the third.
Riordan answered right back on a nine-play drive that saw quarterback Azaan Ledbetter salvage a broken play for a 20-yard run, and Lavaka Kefu run the final 14 yards for a score with 10:14 to go, taking a big licking as he crossed the goal line.
Dowling became increasingly frustrated throughout the game, and that came to a head on what would prove to be the Irish’s final drive. Wearing the No. 3 jersey instead of his No. 18 — torn in the middle of the game — Dowling completed two straight passes before he was stripped on a sack by Estillore and Pineda. One play and one personal foul later, he was drilled by Russell, and had to be held back by teammates as the referees walked the ball back to the Sacred Heart Cathedral 45, setting up fourth-and-29.
The punt snap went over Irish punter Dara Keane’s head, and he tried to rugby kick the ball away in a hurry. The high drive didn’t go far, and took a bounce in front of Russell at the Sacred Heart Cathedral 25. Much of the sideline — including Modeste — had already turned away, but Russell — sitting on five tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup — saw an opportunity with 5:36 to go.
“When the punt went off, I noticed that they fumbled it, and I knew it was going to be a short punt,” he said. “When I saw it in the air, I was like, ‘Please, let it be in bounds. I want that to come back to me.’ I saw it bounce one time, picked it up, took it to the house.”
Russell juked one would-be tackler and bowled over another on his way to paydirt, the first touchdown of his career.
“This is my senior year, I had to get me a touchdown,” Russell said.
“We have a most inspirational trophy, the Baxter Award, that will probably go to a guy like that, that doesn’t miss a practice,” Modeste said. “You wouldn’t know if we were 0-7, 2-7 or 7-2 if you talked to him. He played fullback, inside linebacker, moved around, D-line, outside backer, he played what we needed him to play. He’s the kind of kid you want to build with.”
After the game, Russell lifted the Stanfel Trophy to his lips and gave it a kiss.
“When I looked at that trophy, I was like, ‘We did something here. We made history today,’” Russell said. “It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in my life, even better than a touchdown, for sure.”