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Sweet 16: CdM makes history with victory
CARSON – It didn’t take long for the historic cheer to emerge from Corona del Mar’s celebration at StubHub Center.
“Sixteen and 0, baby!” a player yelled as the Sea Kings posed on the field for their first pictures as state champions.
No high school football team from California had been able to accurately holler such words until the Sea Kings on Saturday afternoon.
Corona del Mar followed its signature winning formula one more time, dispatching Sacred Heart Prep of Atherton, 27-15, in the CIF State Division 3 championship bowl game.
The Sea Kings became the first team from the Golden State to finish a season 16-0, capitalizing on the second-year regional format for the state playoffs while consistently delivering on offense, defense and special teams. CdM beat 16-0 St. John Bosco of Bellflower - a 20-14 winner against De La Salle of Concord in the night game -- to the record by a few hours.
“It feels amazing to be part of something like this,” said Corona del Mar running back Cole Martin, who rushed for 155 yards on 28 carries.
“Our games are sometimes crazy. Sometimes we have it under control. I think we had this one under control the whole game.”
In extending its winning streak to a now state-leading 26 games, Corona del Mar showcased its powerful ground attack as Martin, Anthony Battista (67 yards) and QB Luke Napolitano combined for 266 yards. The Sea Kings’ defense, led by corner Barrett Barbato (team-high 10 tackles, interception return for a score), came through again, forcing four turnovers. And special teams were again an advantage for Corona del Mar.
“It’s been an amazing team effort,” Coach Scott Meyer said. “We scored on defense. We got the special teams. … (We) kind of again went to the ground game to finish it off in the second half.”
There were some nervous moments for the Sea Kings, who became the fifth county team to win a state bowl.
While Corona del Mar jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, Sacred Heart (13-2) answered with 15 points in the second period to take the momentum at halftime.
But the Sea Kings’ defense quickly grabbed the momentum back in the third quarter. On the third play, defensive lineman Justin Hess sacked quarterback Mason Randall, forcing a fumble that fellow defensive lineman Parker Chase recovered at the Gators 31. The turnover led to a 31-yard field by Jason Neiger, who made it 24-15 with 7:37 left in the third.
Then early in the fourth, Corona del Mar linebacker Hugh Crance recovered a fumble near midfield on an option run by Sacred Heart Prep. Neiger calmly turned the turnover into a 35-yard field goal with 7:11 left to cap the scoring.
"He really grew up today," Corona del Mar assistant coach Brad Bohn said of Neiger, a left-footed sophomore who tied the state Division 3 bowl record for field goals in a game.
The scoring drive included a successful fourth-and-1 conversion by Napolitano but not until after anxious moments with the measurement. Corona del Mar said the bright, orange yard-marking clip attached to the chain became loose during the measurement on Napolitano’s 1-yard sneak to the Sacred Heart Prep 41 with 9:44 left. The game was delayed as the officials figured out the spot, with Corona del Mar leading, 24-15.
"It was kind of one of those things where you're going, 'That's a turning point in the game,' " Corona del Mar offensive coordinator Kevin Hettig said of the confusion. "And we thought we had it anyway."
Said CdM center Giovanni Gentosi, "That would have been a big play if we didn't get that fourth down but I knew that we got it by at least the push we got on the offensive line."
Corona del Mar’s defense then sealed the victory by forcing the Gators to turn the ball over on downs at the Sea Kings 8 with 4:20 left.
The Sea Kings' defense, led by coordinator Dan O'Shea, only allowed one score: a dazzling, 47-yard TD run in the second quarter by Ben Burr-Kirven, a junior who looked like the Gators' best athlete. Sacred Heart's other score was a 37-yard interception return by Andrew Robinson on a deflection off a Corona del Mar receiver.
But in the second half, the Sea Kings' defense clamped down, limiting the Gators to 74 yards rushing and 38 passing and also forcing three fumbles.
"The main plan was just to the stack the box and stop the running game," Barbato said.
Corona del Mar couldn’t have started the game much better.
The Sea Kings opened with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that Napolitano capped with a 5-yard TD pass to Bo St. Geme on third-and-1. Napolitano sparked the drive with a 27-yard completion over the middle to Max Chozen on the first play from scrimmage.
After Corona del Mar’s defense forced a three-and-out on the next possession, Sacred Heart Prep sailed the snap over the punter’s head. The Gators recovered, but the scramble and punt resulted in a 2-yard loss. Corona del Mar took over at the Sacred Heart Prep 29. Five plays later, Napolitano tossed a 5-yard TD pass to tight end Connor Sage for a 14-0 lead with 3:55 left in the first.
Sacred Heart Prep started to move the ball on its next possession but Barbato jumped a route for a 58-yard interception return for a score with 11 seconds left in the opening frame. Barbato said he was in zone coverage and saw QB Mason Randall lock onto one receiver.
"We've started off most games pretty fast," Meyer said. "It's just a testament to our players and our coaches who prepare them. For 16 weeks, that's a lot of games to maintain that focus and that edge, and they did it."
Barbato’s interception also gave the Sea Kings a play that matched the championship guidelines they received Friday night in a pregame speech from former UCLA football Terry Donahue. Senior safety Charlie Griffin said Donahue told the Sea Kings to focus, execute, “crush” the Gators’ “will” and enjoy the moment.
“We were pumped up,” Griffin said. “We wanted to play.”
And on Saturday, Corona del Mar’s well-round play made for Sweet 16 history.
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