Sacred Heart Prep never forgot its Week Four heartbreaker to Hillsdale, one of six one-score losses during a rollercoaster season. In this rematch in the Central Coast Section Division IV semifinals on Friday, the Gators were out to right old wrongs.
“We all were super-hyped going into the week because we knew it was our revenge match,” senior receiver-safety Zach Freire said. “There was a lot of energy.”
Maybe that’s why moments before SHP’s first play from scrimmage, fullback Andrew Latu looked at Freire and said, “Watch how I’m going to block this guy.”
Freire took the handoff on a sweep and witnessed Latu blowing up a defender at the line of scrimmage to free his teammate for an 82-yard touchdown. It was clear … this game would be different.
The visiting Gators routed Hillsdale, 42-14, to a point where a running clock was used for most of the fourth quarter before the Knights scored a late touchdown. SHP advanced to the CCS final against Homestead (7-5), a 36-18 winner over Santa Teresa. The game will be played Friday or Saturday at a site to be determined.
In a season that included four consecutive close losses, the Gators (5-7) used that to get better.
“We started to play for each other,” Freire said.
Now, the Gators have somehow reached a championship game, outscoring their two playoff opponents by a combined 84-14.
The 20-13 loss to Hillsdale ended with the Gators inside the Knights’ 10-yard-line when the clock ran out. A week later, the Gators allowed a touchdown and two-point conversion with 14 seconds left against Burlingame in a 22-21 loss.
“I would describe the season as frustrating and filled with disappointment,” coach Mark Grieb said. “But the awesome thing is, despite the losses that kept mounting, our team just never gave up. They kept working at it, kept supporting one another, kept showing up every day, kept working hard. You’ve seen the result of it the last two weeks.”
This was an unusual game and here are reasons why:
• Sacred Heart Prep never attempted a pass.
• Through the game’s first 17:50 (until 4:10 remained in the second quarter), Sacred Heart Prep ran only two offensive plays – and led 21-7.
• Hillsdale ran 62 plays to SHP’s 22 and lost by 28.
• SHP averaged 12.0 yards per play.
On the opening kickoff, Jake York scooped up a bouncing ball at his own 20. Because the ball had been squibbed, the plan for the return was scrapped.
“Just get the ball and run,” was York’s first thought.
York began the season on kick returns, but said his own poor performance, combined with Carter Shaw’s talent on returns, lost him the job. But with Shaw limited to defense Friday because of an injury, York retook the return spot and bolted 80 yards for a touchdown.
“I saw a hole up the middle and was like, All right, I’ve got to hit this,” York said.
The boost was felt immediately, even though Hillsdale answered with a 10-play drive that advanced as far as the SHP 10 before an intentional grounding penalty and a sack by Latu knocked back Hillsdale (9-3) and forced a punt. Then came Freire’s long run. That’s 14-0 on one offensive play.
“The energy was really palpable tonight,” Grieb said. “We were so ready to face them again. The way our previous game with them turned out added some fuel to the fire in terms of being motivated and wanting to show what we could do.”
On the second play of Hillsdale’s next possession, Liam Smith’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off by Freire (Luke De Grosz and Shaw would add interceptions later). On the next play, Freire swept around left end for a 13-yard touchdown run. Two plays and a 21-0 lead.
Hillsdale would run off the next 24 plays – an 18-play touchdown drive followed by a successful onside kick, followed by six more plays. That string ended on a fumble, and the Gators took advantage with Ravu Savali combining for 32 yards on three carries and Luis Mendoza doing the rest with a 48-yard scoring run.
By halftime, SHP averaged 27.3 yards on its total of six offensive plays – all runs -- and led 28-7. Sacred Heart Prep finished with 264 yards on the ground, with Freire leading the way with 126 on five carries.
Take a bow left tackle Aseli Fangupo, left guard Tyler Wong, center John Adrian Dioli, right guard Mason Chetcuti, right tackle R.J. Stephens, tight end Mat Bucher, and fullback Latu.
“The whole plan was to establish the run,” Grieb said. “And now my line coaches are ecstatic.
“The blocks were amazing, the way the line got off the ball, the way they adjusted. Hillsdale does some things in their front that are tricky – they move guys at the last minute. They know us as well as we know ourselves, and do some things that are hard to handle. I thought the way our line handled that and got on blocks and finished blocks was super impressive.”
SHP advances to its eighth CCS final and first since a 35-34 loss to Aptos in the 2018 Open Division III final. The Gators are 5-2 in championship games.
To be in this position, after all the struggles … “It really speaks to the resilience of the team and the character of these kids,” Grieb said, “and how they’ve been able to hang in there.”