FOOTHILL COLLEGE — Last year, Zach Taylor-Smith led the St. Ignatius Wildcats to a victory over the Mitty Monarchs in his second start at quarterback, snapping a six-game losing streak and launching the Wildcats into a playoff run.
Teddye Buchanan was sidelined by injury at the time, and with both healthy this year, the two have split time in a system where they slot in the depth chart as 1A and 1B.
While the Wildcats were fighting to escape the cellar last season, they’ve thrived with the two-QB system this year. With Buchanan out on Friday with a quadriceps injury, Taylor-Smith took the reins all by himself and turned in one of his best performances of his career, completing 14 of 20 passes for 135 yards in a 21-7 win over the Monarchs to keep hopes of a WCAL title alive.
“He wasn’t (WCAL) Junior of the Year for nothing,” running back Jahsai Shannon said of his QB. “He’s always got a chip on his shoulder, always working hard. He came up today and balled out for us when we needed him to step up.”
Taylor-Smith also impressed Mitty head coach Sione Ta’ufo’ou.
“He ran his butt off for them,” Ta’ufo’ou said.
With the win, St. Ignatius (7-2, 5-1 WCAL) currently sits in second place, a position that will be shared with the loser of tomorrow’s game between Valley Christian and Serra. SI lost 17-7 to Valley on Oct. 5 and will host Serra next Saturday to conclude the regular season.
Both Buchanan and Shamir Bey, Mitty’s star quarterback, were out Friday with injuries, but it was clear from the start that the Wildcats would hardly miss a beat with their 1B quarterback handling full-time duties. While Taylor-Smith was a run-first QB last year, he spent much more time in the pocket Friday night, dictating the pace as he moved the ball effectively throughout the course of the night.
Taylor-Smith quickly found his land legs, completing three passes to Danny Ryan on the first Wildcat drive to set up a two-yard Shannon touchdown run, the first for the junior, nicknamed “Scoop,” since he moved back from Las Vegas with his family earlier in the season.
“There’s a lot of hype and outside noise that can be placed on high school kids that’s not necessarily reflective of who they are,” head coach John Regalia said of his running back. “Jahsai’s a good football player, an excellent teammate and an extremely hard worker. To see him score is awesome.”
Shannon finished with 51 yards on 12 carries in his fourth game, entrenching himself as St. Ignatius’ primary back after splitting the role over the prior few weeks.
Though a holding penalty killed the second Wildcats drive at the Monarchs’ 30, St. Ignatius went right back to work after the defense forced a third consecutive three-and-out to open the game. Mitty (6-3, 4-2 in WCAL) made it a priority to avoid running up the middle against the defensive line of Beau Gardner and Seta Netane. Instead, the Monarchs took their chances on the outside. They tested the likes of Chad Jensen, Duke Reeder and Jafer Snipes, who answered the challenge just as Taylor-Smith did on offense. Mitty’s longest gain went for just 14 yards.
“We were just playing cautious in the secondary,”said senior Wildcats safety Deven Enos. “We couldn’t give up the trick plays that they like to run.”
After Reeder’s sack of Monarchs backup Reece Burton closed the third Mitty possession, the St. Ignatius passing game revved up again. Ryan was held without a touchdown for just the second time in nine games, but had eight catches for 72 yards, bringing him to 46 receptions in league play, breaking the all-time WCAL mark held by Mitty’s Mitch Haniger, now an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners. Two of those receptions came on the Wildcats’ second-quarter touchdown drive, setting up a 12-yard scoring strike from Taylor-Smith to Danny Burke.
“We knew what we wanted to get in the passing game,” Taylor-Smith said. “A lot of unders and some post curls.”
Taylor-Smith got exactly what he wanted, with none of his completions going for more than 14 yards but 10 of them gaining at least nine.
The Monarchs finally broke out of their string of three-and-outs on the following possession, putting the ball in the hands of their best receiver, Reymello Murphy. He had seven catches, but the longest of those plays covered just nine yards and he finished with only 47 on the night, his second-lowest total of the year.
Murphy got Mitty moving with his only two carries of the night, gaining 11 and 14 yards, and running backs Zach Webb and Zach Tabangcura took the Monarchs across midfield. They managed to set up first-and-goal at the six with 2:26 left in the first half, but Jensen managed to wrap up Tabangcura for a five-yard loss on the following play. Burton overthrew Connor Gambelin on the next play but Tabangcura gained six yards on a toss to set up fourth and goal, giving the Monarchs a chance to get back within a score before halftime.
Burton dropped back to pass on fourth down, where Snipes was able to break through the line and swallow him up for a sack that allowed the Wildcats to go into the break in complete control.
“I was playing outside linebacker and we called an edge insert,” the senior said. “I was one-on-one with the running back back and ended up down the middle.”
The defense didn’t waver until Burton (13-of-24 passing for 99 yards) found Andrew Wilson for a one-yard touchdown with 4:12 left, long after the outcome had been decided. The Wildcats punted in Mitty territory for the second time as their opening drive of the third quarter ended without points, but answered by blowing up a fake punt attempt to take possession back at the Mitty 17.
Kealan O’Connell, who missed three extra points on the night, made up for his struggles with a 28-yarder, and Enos picked Burton off on the first play of Mitty’s ensuing drive, returning it to the Monarchs’ two-yard line before finally being dragged down.
Just as the St. Ignatius defense had changed the game with a goal-line stand, the Monarchs had a chance for one of their own as the third quarter ended with three runs gaining just a yard. After moving play to the north end zone, Shannon got the call on fourth-and-goal and was met at the line, but managed to power his way out of the tackle and dive into the end zone for the game-sealing score, as the normally tame Wildcat sideline erupted.
“That’s what we call an attitude play,” Regalia said. “We wanted to make sure we put everything in that play, and we did. That’s where the excitement came from.”
There would be much less excitement on the Mitty side, where the home crowd had little to cheer about on Senior Night until the final minutes. The Monarchs rushing attack wouldn’t completely be snuffed out, but none of the three backs would be able to take over. Tabangcura had 42 yards on 10 carries, Webb ran nine times for 63 yards and James Thomas, who had missed the prior five games with a transverse process fracture in his spine, had 32 yards on five runs. In all, Mitty gained just 218 yards.