Shay O'Kelly (58) paved the way for Sacred Heart Prep's defense to shut out University Prep in the Northern California 5-A Championship.
Daniel Haniger/Special to Prep2Prep

SHP pitches second shutout of playoffs to win NorCal crown

December 5, 2021

ATHERTON, Calif. — The Sacred Heart Prep Gators have found postseason success by running the ball, but on Saturday, one pass play stood out.

Jack Herrell hit halfback Andrew Latu on a wheel route early in the second quarter to open up a two-score lead over University Prep in the Northern California 5-A Championship, a game the Gators went on to win 20-0.

“I knew from film that they’d have a hard time schematically covering that, and sure enough, Andrew goes down the field and Jack makes a phenomenal throw right on the money,” SHP head coach Mark Grieb said.

The 80-yard touchdown was the one big play that stood out in a game otherwise defined by long, methodical drives and bend-but-don’t-break defenses. Sacred Heart Prep (7-7) let the visiting Panthers reach the red zone three times, but never allowed a single point.

Sophomore Anthony Noto’s sack on fourth-and-goal from the 1 ended UPrep’s first drive, and the Panthers fell out of the red zone on a bizarre play to close the first quarter before missing a 45-yard field goal on the opening play of the second.

On third-and-1 from the 9, Shay O’Kelly stopped the Panther rusher at the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble. University Prep (13-1) picked up the loose ball, but the lineman who recovered the fumble got spun around and began running the wrong way.

As he was being brought down, he attempted what he thought was a lateral to an open teammate, but in reality, it was an illegal forward pass. The end result pushed the visitors all the way back to the 28, and the ensuing field goal had the distance but missed to the left. Herrell hit Latu for an 80-yard score on the very next play, and the Gator defense had more than enough of a cushion to handle matters from there.

“Our defense has been working hard all year,” SHP linebacker Mat Bucher said. “We’ve bonded together really well. We knew they were gonna run it at us, but we were ready to jump and gang-tackle.”

The already run-heavy Panthers were all but glued to the ground after losing quarterback Payton Henderson to injury on the game’s opening drive. And though Carter Abel (19 carries, 67 yards) and Ryan Dyab (10 carries, 50 yards) kept the offense moving, it never led to any points.

“Any time your captain goes down, it’s rough,” University Prep head coach Dustin Fortenberry said after his team’s only loss of the season. “Payton is a two-way starter, an all-league player and an all-section player. It’s devastating, but our kids never made an excuse and never quit.”

That no-quit attitude was on display in the third quarter as the Panthers drove deep into SHP territory after forcing a three-and-out, but a quick handoff on fourth-and-3 got stopped well short of the mark to gain.

From there, the Gators went on a 14-play, 91-yard drive to put the game out of reach. Herrell hit top target Jake York for a gain of 24 and Noto rumbled for a 23-yard gain before finishing the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run.

“We’re a bunch of power runners who put in the hours and if there’s a man in our way, we go right through them,” said Noto, who ran for 45 yards on seven carries, spelling Andrew Latu and Luis Mendoza in the backfield.

After fly back Zach Freire suffered a broken leg in the Gators’ CCS Division IV Championship victory over Homestead, Brandon Hsing and Luke Maxwell combined to fill the role.

“We did a great job running the ball outside,” Grieb said.

Just three of SHP’s carries went for 10 yards or more, but the Gators made big plays when needed. Herrell completed 6 of 12 passes for 199 yards, with York accounting for 91 of those yards on three receptions.

While the Gators will turn their attention to next Saturday’s state championship game against Righetti-Santa Maria, the four-hour drive back to Redding marked the last ride for a University Prep senior class headlined by Abel, Dyab and Henderson that recorded a 26-4 record over the prior three seasons.

“Our kids are really good kids of the highest quality,” Fortenberry said. “If we had gone 1-9, they’d be the same kind of kids.”

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