It comes down to this for the Olympian High School football team: The goal has been reached and, in the process, the bar has been raised.
The Eagles made their history-making debut in Monday’s San Diego Section Division III championship game at Qualcomm Stadium, facing the division’s resident heavyweight champion: the Cathedral Catholic Dons.
The game was part of a championship quadruple-header at the Mission Valley facility that also serves as home of the NCAA Division I San Diego State University Aztecs and NFL San Diego Chargers football teams.
Qualcomm Stadium is thus viewed in local football circles as the sport’s pinnacle destination.
And that wasn’t lost on Olympian’s coaching staff.
Six years ago, OHS head coach Gil Warren and his staff hung a photograph of the stadium in the school’s football meeting room. “I told them that’s where we want to play,” Warren said.
The Eagles completed their inaugural season at the junior varsity level and then moved to the varsity ranks five years ago. Each year, the goal has been the same — to get to the Q.
Each year, the team has finished closer to that goal. Olympian qualified for the Division V playoffs in 2007, advanced to the Division IV quarterfinals in 2009 and made it as far as the Division IV semifinals last season.
The milestone was finally reached on Dec. 1 when host Olympian, the reigning Metro-Mesa League champions, defeated the two-time defending Metro-South Bay League champion Mar Vista Mariners, 40-8, in a Division III semifinal game. The winner advanced to Monday’s division championship game.
Though Monday’s history-making occasion was marred by a 41-0 loss to the five-time defending Division III champion Dons, Warren and school officials did their best to put everything in perspective.
The Eagles’ first journey to prep football’s promised land will be something to remember. Certainly, the standard has been set for future teams.
“We’ve gotten a little better each year,” Warren said. “It will be up to next year’s team to get back here and win this game.”
Warren presented OHS principal Elaine Leano with the CIF runner-up plaque during the post-game awards ceremony. She clutched it tightly while some of the school’s football players fought back tears.
“To get here in just six years is a big accomplishment,” Leano said. “It’s a great tribute to our coaching staff. Gil Warren is a legend in the South Bay. It’s also a real tribute to John Devore, the school’s first principal, who hired this coaching staff when the school opened.”
Senior Devon Flores, one of the team’s inspirational leaders, said the runner-up plaque embodies the heart and soul of this year’s team.
“We worked heard every day the whole season to get here,” Flores said. “We had a slow start but we finished strong. We just couldn’t finish it today but we had a great season.”
San Diego Section Commissioner Jerry Schniepp, who spent five years as the Sweetwater district’s athletics coordinator, lauded the Eagles’ arrival in the CIF championship game.
“It’s huge for the South Bay,” Schniepp underscored. “It’s a great story about what hard work and dedication can accomplish, both on the part of the coaches and the players, and have a community buy into it. It’s impressive for a school this young to be here.”
Monday’s match-up against Cathedral Catholic, ranked third in the section behind the No. 1 Helix Highlanders and No. 2 Poway Titans, was the second this season between the teams. The Dons (12-1) defeated host Olympian, 31-0, in a non-league game on Sept. 23.
Since that meeting, the Eagles (9-4) had improved each week, running off an eight-game winning streak that included an impressive 4-0 run through the Metro Conference’s top tier Metro-Mesa League.
Olympian received the No. 3 seed in the division playoffs. The Eagles defeated the 11th-seeded Serra Conquistadors, 49-7, in the quarterfinals on Nov. 25 prior to putting together their best showing of the season in quashing Mar Vista in the semifinals.
The Mariners (11-2) were coming off a stunning 42-28 victory over second-seeded St. Augustine in the quarterfinals.
Warren promised that the Dons, who draw student-athletes from throughout the county and train in state-of-the-art facilities, would be seeing a different-look team in Monday’s CIF title game.
And they did. The physical Olympian defense, led by Metro-Mesa Player of the Year Santana Leomiti, appeared to have an answer for everything Cathedral Catholic attempted in the opening minutes of the game. The Eagles repeatedly threw the Dons’ running game for a loss. It was an impressive sight to behold.
But the City Conference Eastern League champions quickly devised a solution: They found success with the passing game.
With the Olympian offense shut down by the Dons’ equally ferocious defense, Cathedral Catholic played most of the first half on a short field, repeatedly starting drives in Eagles territory.
It was simply too much to ask for from Olympian’s stalwart defenders.
Brian Heinz hauled in the first of his four touchdowns on the afternoon to put the Dons up 7-0 with 5:59 remaining in the first quarter. Heinz out-leaped an Olympian defender in the end zone to complete a 24-yard pass reception from quarterback Garrett Bogart.
Still, the yards the Dons earned didn’t come easily.
In fact, for a time it appeared Olympian might get out of the first half trailing only by a touchdown. But the roof caved in during the latter stages of the second quarter.
Heinz scored on a 76-yard catch-and-carry with 6:20 left in the half to put the Dons up 13-0. Cathedral then capitalized on a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown by Parker Price with 4:33 to play in the second quarter.
Down 20-0, the Eagles finally appeared to be driving for a touchdown but were stymied when quarterback Chris Humphrey was intercepted by Price at the five-yard line.
The game’s momentum likely turned for good at this point. Rather than trapping the Dons deep in their own end and forcing a punt for good field position, the Eagles instead were victimized by several big plays that led to a crushing 95-yard downfield march by Cathedral Catholic.
When Heinz capped the whirlwind scoring drive on a 10-yard pass reception with 14 seconds left to play in the first half, the Dons had a 27-0 lead.
Warren said the punt return for a touchdown and 95-yard scoring drive proved to be, in his words, “killers.”
“We felt we had a real chance to win this game,” Warren said. “I take the blame for not getting us mentally prepared. Our defense came out and played well. But our offense couldn’t move the ball. We made a lot of mental mistakes we just couldn’t overcome.”
Warren said the short turnaround — just three days from the semifinal win — plus the team’s first trip to the stadium played key parts in the lopsided loss. The veteran coach said awe factor was apparent.
Olympian players appeared absolutely devastated following the game.
On the other side of the field, it was a far different story — one of expectation and elation.
The division title was the ninth for the Dons in their history and eighth since the formation of Division III in 1993.
Cathedral Catholic, winners of a State Bowl championship in 2008, put a bold exclamation point on the 2011 season by finishing the playoffs with three shutout victories.
The Dons defeated ninth-seeded Lincoln, 45-0, in the quarterfinals and fourth-seeded Point Loma, 24-0, in the semifinals to add to their 41-0 championship game victory over the Eagles.
That’s a 110-0 scoring edge. That’s about as close to perfection as one can get. And Cathedral Catholic is about as close as one can get to a perfect high school football program.
The Dons were overwhelming favorites against any team they would have faced in the title game.
Bogart completed 12 of 17 passing attempts for 284 yards and five touchdowns. Heinz had four catches for 123 yards — all touchdowns — while teammate Andrew Pascale had two catches for 108 yards and one score.
Pascale’s 75-yard romp made the score 34-0 with 9:42 to play in the third quarter.
Heinz caught his fourth TD pass of the game on a 13-yard pass from backup quarterback Brady Aiken with 2:19 left in the third quarter to complete scoring in the game.
J.J. Stavola rushed 19 times for 79 yards. As a team, the Dons were limited to 82 rushing yards on 35 attempts.
The offensive numbers were downright anemic for the Eagles, however. Olympian’s vaunted rushing game was limited to just 35 net yards on 31 attempts. Humphrey completed just four of 14 passing attempts for 76 yards with one interception. He was sacked four times.
Asante Gibson had eight carries for 30 yards while Isaiah Gibson had three carries for 13 yards. Ian Autman had three carries for 12 yards while Aikeem Foxworth had eight carries for just seven net yards.
Daniel Gutierrez led the OHS receivers with two catches for 55 yards, including one 44-yard sideline catch-and-carry. Sergio Bailey had one catch for 21 yards.
The defensive ledger was brighter. Flores led the team with 11 tackles, including one sack, while Leomiti chipped in with seven stops.
The Eagles sacked Bogart four times in the game.
Cathedral’s Bogart passed for three touchdowns in the early season win over Olympian, including one 67-yarder to Heinz.
Top-seeded Poway’s 56-0 victory over third-seeded Vista in Monday’s Division I championship game set a new section record for largest margin of victory in a final encounter.
Poway, the section’s lone undefeated team at 12-0-1, capitalized on three successive Vista miscues (muffed punt, fumble and interception) and added a 50-yard scoring pass to build 28-0 lead midway through the first quarter. The Titans forced six turnovers — two fumble recoveries and four interceptions (including a pick six for 64 yards by Derek Babiash) — in building a 49-0 halftime lead.
Jonathan Petersen recovered two fumbles and intercepted a pass in the opening 5:36 of the game. Babiash finished the game with three picks.
Gabriel Isaak completed 10 of 13 passing attempts for 134 yards and four touchdowns. Isaiah Gross hauled in two scoring passes while younger brother Nehemiah Gross scored two rushing touchdowns. Conor Flanagan also scored one rushing TD while Dillon McMahon and Alec Moreno both had TD catches.
Isaiah Gross had four catches for 87 yards.