Corona del Mar coach Scott Meyer was holding court inside the tunnel at the StubHub Center in Carson when someone told him he had received a message from a former UCLA football coach.
“Terry Donahue just called,” Meyer was told, “and says thanks for not screwing up his pre-game speech.”
The speech came Friday night at a team dinner in Newport Beach when Donahue told CdM players the keys to winning big games: focus, execution, impose your will and have fun.
He might have also added hang on to the ball, because on the biggest stage of the season, Corona del Mar held onto the ball better than Atherton Sacred Heart Prep and emerged with a 27-15 victory Saturday in the Division II State Bowl Championship presented by Farmers.
Sacred Heart lost four fumbles, and CdM safety Barrett Barbato returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 first quarter lead.
Two fumbles in the second half led to Jason Neiger field goals of 31 and 35 yards, and a third fumble at the CdM 15 was as devastating as they come to Sacred Heart’s comeback hopes.
With its victory, Corona del Mar (16-0) became Orange County’s first team to win 16 in a season and extended its winning streak to 26 games—second only to Concord De La Salle’s 40 heading into the Open Bowl Championship against Bellflower St. John Bosco as the state's longest active streak.
But it didn’t come without Sacred Heart (13-2) making its run at the championship in the second quarter. The Gators also got an interception return for a touchdown, 37 yards by Charlie Robinson and a two-point run by Ben Burr-Kirven, and Burr-Kirven’s 47-yard blast to pull to 21-15 with 3:25 left in the half. The Central Coast champion clearly had momentum, in much the same way Garden Grove had come back from a 14-0 deficit to tie the score with CdM in the Southern Division title game two weeks ago; CdM won that game, 42-21, to win its third straight section title.
“We’re a second half team,” said junior running back Cole Martin. “Everyone knows we tire people out. That’s exactly what we did.”
Burr-Kirven was a load. He had 16 tackles, and he carried seven times for 77 yards. Andrew Segre carried 16 for 54 yards for the Gators. Randall Mason completed 10 of 17 passes for 107 yards with the costly interception.
“They got the big play on defense and Burr-Kirven busted the big play, but other than that, I thought our defense played great,” Meyer said of his team's effort against an opponent that hadn't scored fewer than 34 points in its four earlier playoff games.
CdM gave up as many as 21 points only three times during its run and joins Orange Lutheran, Servite and St. Margaret's as Bowl champions from Orange County since the state adopted the format in 2006.
Although Corona del Mar was hardly sharp, it was certainly more efficient. Luke Napolitano completed seven of 17 passes for 73 yards and two 5-yard scores that completed drives of 75 and 29 yards on its first two possessions. Napolitano was intercepted twice. He also rushed seven times for 47 yards
“It feels surreal,” the senior quarterback said. “Unbelievable. It’s the biggest goal I’ve set and achieved my whole life.”
He got some help from his backfield. Martin carried 28 times for 155 yards, and sophomore Anthony Battista carried 12 for 67 to help grind out the clock after getting the big lead.
Napolitano said that even though Corona del Mar didn’t play great, it got off to a great start. Did it ever.
The Sea Kings drove 75 yards on their opening drive, including Max Chozen’s 27-yard reception and Bo St. Geme’s 13 among the 11 plays. St. Geme, one of four non-seniors on the offense, caught a 5-yard score to lead 7-0.
Three plays later, the CdM defense—with only one senior starter, defensive back Charlie Griffin—forced a punt that was a disaster for Sacred Heart. The snap went over the head of Riley Tinsley. He gathered the ball and made a run for it to his left before hurriedly kicking it near the CdM sideline. The punt netted minus-2 yards.
Five plays later, Napolitano hit Connor Sage for a 14-0 lead.
Sacred Heart’s next possession, after showing life and driving from its 25 to the CdM 43, ended with Barbato’s pick-six with 11 seconds left in the quarter.
“The quarterback was looking directly at his receiver,” said Barbato of his fourth interception of the season. “I’m sure he didn’t see me.”
Everyone else in the stadium did as he gave Corona del Mar an insurmountable lead.
Barbato, a safety, led Corona del Mar with 10 tackles.
“We had a goal to win league, then win the CIF title,” Meyer said. “Not once at the beginning of the year did we mention state.”
But the coaching staff, Napolitano said, kept the program focused only on the game in front of them, and they continued to walk off the field victoriously until there were no more games to play.And they had fun. Just like Donahue advised.