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ROHNERT PARK — Cardinal Newman scored first, but couldn’t sustain the momentum and went down to defeat 38-21 in the North Coast Section Division 4 football title game Saturday at Rancho Cotate High School.

After receiving the opening kickoff, the Cardinals marched down the field efficiently on their first drive.

They looked like the 7-0 North Bay League champions that started the game 11-2 overall.

Newman strung together 11 plays, highlighted by a 21-yard Jordon Brookshire pass to Michael Daily on third-and-two to set up the score.

Five plays later, Brookshire’s dive from less than a yard out gave Newman a 7-0 lead — as it turned out, their only lead of the night.

Top-seeded Marin Catholic, now 12-1, pounced even quicker, as Jake Laudenslager broke three tackles in a 42-yard run up the middle on the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage.

Marin quarterback Darius Peterson then completed a 10-yard pass and broke open his own 32-yard run to score 30 seconds after Newman put points on the board.

The score erased Newman’s advantage, but also squashed the momentum the second-seeded Cardinals felt they’d built.

“We felt pretty good after that first drive,” Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. “We drove right down the field. We knew we were going to have to score some points in this game because their quarterback is so dynamic and can be so dangerous.”

But on Newman’s next drive, receiver-defensive back Damian Wallace seriously injured a knee and was forced to come out of the game. Wallace, a 5-9 junior, was the Cardinals’ top receiver this year, averaging more than 17 yards per catch and combining with Brookshire for 16 TDs.

His absence forced Cardinal Newman to change their game plan.

“We did plan on Damian for a lot of points,” Cronin said. “We lost our best guy, a guy who has more than 1,000 yards receiving.”

Halfback-lineman Michael Ortola was also forced to sit out a chunk of time to be checked for possible concussion symptoms.

And inside linebacker Bala Triolo was also hurt early in the first quarter.

Cronin knew Marin Catholic’s size and power were going to be a challenge.

“When we scrimmaged them before the season,” he said, “we knew they were more physical than us. But we had a bit more skill than them.”

But losing three key players hurt, he acknowledged.

Marin Catholic coach Mazi Moayed said the momentum swing in the first quarter was crucial.

“We had good momentum early. We wanted to get out to a fast start, unlike the last two or three games, because they are so explosive,” he said. “We built on that.”

“When they lost one of their top players (Wallace) right out of the game, that hurt them and worked to our advantage.”

Marin Catholic put together a nine-play drive and scored on a wild tipped pass at the start of the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead, which they would never relinquish.

On first-and-10 at Newman’s 14 yard line, Peterson threw a bullet to Will Buckstaff, who dived to catch it, but the ball bounced off his chest and right into the hands of Peter Armusewicz, who was running a route that would have crossed Buckstaff.

Armusewicz trotted about three more yards, untouched, into the end zone.

After Newman punted on its next possession, the Wildcats scored again, on a Peterson-to-Armusewicz four-yard pass.

The extra point by Sean McKeogh made it 21-7 with 5:43 left in the second quarter.

Cardinal Newman put together a mini-rally in the fourth quarter, breathing life back into their game.

Ortola scampered in for a 28-yard touchdown with 9:54 left, and a two-point conversion pass from Brookshire to Gavin Dove brought the Cardinals to 31-15.

Their ensuing onside kick failed, but Newman got the ball back just three plays later when Andrew Casey recovered a Peterson fumble at Newman’s 25-yard line.

On a keeper, Brookshire broke through the left side of the line and through the middle for a 55-yard gain.

Ortola scored on a one-yard run, but the conversion try failed, leaving a 10-point deficit, 31-21 with 6:41 left.

Cronin knew there was little hope at that point.

“It sure would have been better to be down by seven at that point,” he said. “That when the hole were got in in the first half just was just too big to overcome.”

Marin Catholic is expected to play Central Catholic of Modesto (14-0), which defeated Oakdale 21-7 on Friday, in the state bowl playoffs. Official state brackets will be announced today.

Marin Catholic has won 10 NCS titles. Cardinal Newman has won 11, its last in 2010.