Sacred Heart Cathedral has always had a rich athletic tradition but it’s never really been in football. In fact, now, after an impressive 48-29 Division 4-A victory over Northview-Covina, the Fightin' Irish have won their first CIF state championship to go along with four state titles in girls basketball, one in boys basketball and one in girls volleyball.
The probability of the Fightin' Irish going from 0-5 to winning a state title seemed like the longest of long shots, but head coach Barry McLaughlin never gave up. For a team that went 1-3 in the pandemic shortened spring season and 0-10 two years ago, it’s an amazing turnaround. The 8-7 finish is only the second winning record for Sacred Heart Cathedral since McLaughlin took the helm for the 2016-17 season. It was also the first time the Fightin' Irish have even been in the playoffs since their 6-6 finish in the 2018-19 season.
All that history was erased on Saturday night at historic Kezar Stadium in San Francisco when McLaughlin and his players took their position alongside the tradition of the Sacred Heart Cathedral basketball and volleyball programs as state champions.
After the abysmal start, the Fightin' Irish got a real confidence builder in a 21-20 victory over cross-town arch rival St. Ignatius in the annual Mahoney game, and they followed that up with a surprising 20-13 win against a Bellarmine team that was in the midst of a very good season. After those two wins, they had a letdown in a loss to Riordan, and Serra beat them as expected, but it was at that point that the worm began to turn.
The Fightin' Irish closed out West Catholic Athletic League play with a solid 27-16 win at Archbishop Mitty to qualify for the playoffs with a 3-7 record. From there, they ran the table for five straight victories en route to the state crown.
“There were points in the season where we did not know if we would win a game, and then we were favorites for a state title. It's surreal,” McLaughlin told Prep2Prep student reporter Nicholas DeFanti.
"Beating SI was huge because we needed a win, and we played a complete game against Bellarmine,” continued McLaughlin. “After that win we felt like we could run the table, but Riordan gave us a harsh reality check. That game had us in a funk for two weeks but we were able to get out of it against Mitty to start our six-game winning streak."
Despite the almost three-touchdown margin of victory over Northview, things didn’t exactly start out rosy for Sacred Heart Cathedral after a slew of first half penalties and an early 6-0 deficit. In the end, the score was not totally indicative of the closeness of the game.
Senior running back Bruce Uperesa got the Fightin' Irish even with a 55-yard touchdown run, and two touchdown passes by senior quarterback Ray-John Spears to junior wide receiver RJ Miller gave the hosts a 20-6 lead.
Even so, Arlington didn’t fold at that point, and with the help of some penalties they tied the game at 20-20 before Spears got a crucial third down and then connected with junior wide receiver Isaiah Keishk on a 30-yard touchdown pass. After a penalty, junior kicker Brian Cole made a 35-yard PAT to give Sacred Heart Cathedral a 27-20 halftime lead.
Northview (9-7) would get a third-quarter touchdown that was matched by a 51-yard touchdown pass from Spears to Uperesa. At that point the lead was 34-26 midway through the third quarter.
Two major penalties on Sacred Heart Cathedral had Northview threatening again but the Vikings incurred a penalty of their own and had to settle for a field goal to make it 34-29.
It looked like the Fightin' Irish had sealed the victory when midway through the fourth quarter they took a 41-29 lead on a 17-yard TD pass from Spears to Miller, but once again Northview found life by way of a fourth-down penalty that got them into Fightin' Irish territory. Northview then incurred its own penalty and was facing its own fourth-and-11 with the clock winding down.
Vikings quarterback James Arellanes had a receiver open near the SHC sideline, but senior linebacker Jerry Mixon smelled out the play and stepped in front of the would be receiver and raced 63 yards for a touchdown that closed things out.
Spears passed for 300 yards and five touchdowns, Miller had 108 yards receiving and three touchdowns on only four receptions, and Uperesa added 104 yards receiving and one touchdown to his first-quarter touchdown run.
The Sacred Heart Cathedral defense played well, particularly against the run. Northview running back Cheo Medina came into the game with nearly 1,900 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, but he could only muster 45 yards on 18 carries, although he did have 89 yards receiving and a touchdown.
“We knew we had a talented team,” McLaughlin said in conclusion. “But If I can sum it up it took a heck of a lot of trust in each other to get this right.”
Balboa leaves no doubt in its CIF championship victory
Balboa (9-4) gave the CIF San Francisco Section its fourth consecutive CIF state Bowl Game championship in the lowest and second-lowest competitive equity divisions when the Buccaneers won the 7-A title with a running clock 43-0 victory over Taft-Woodland Hills of the Los Angeles City Section. Galileo won the 6-A crown in 2017, Lincoln won the 6-A championship in 2018 when the CIF added a 7-AA division, and then they won the 7-AA division in 2019. This was the first year of a 7-A division.
The blowout started early, as senior running back Davondre Black took the opening kickoff 81 yards for a touchdown and the Buccaneers were off to the races. Black also had the final tally for Balboa when he burst through the line and raced 90 yards to the house with around three minutes remaining.
Senior wide receiver Orlindale Scott Carraway Jr. returned a punt to the Taft 10-yard line and then was on the receiving end of a 10-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ben Nonori.
Note: Prep2Prep student reporter Nicholas DeFanti contributed to this report