Matt Tomlin didn’t mince words. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t even pause. To him it was obvious, clear as a bell when he answered the following question.
“How good is Cardinal Newman?” I asked the head coach of St. Bernard’s, the team Newman just beat 44-21. Usually when a coach sees his team get a smackdown like that — the fourth quarter was played with a running clock — a coach is not given to trenchant analysis and high praise.
With a calm, even-tempered voice that showed not one dollop of annoyance, Tomlin responded with such certainty I asked him to repeat his answer twice. And so he did. The answer, in fact, became more convincing the second time around.
“They played good enough to win the state championship and I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Tomlin, the former Piner coach.
That was followed by an even more convincing answer, when I asked Tomlin to say it one more time.
“I just looked at the team that’s going to win the state championship,” he said.
Tomlin continued and after a while I swore I was listening to someone who was the head of public relations for Newman, if there was such a position.
“They didn’t do anything to surprise us, not at all,” Tomlin said. “We knew what they were going to run but we still couldn’t stop it because they execute so well. It’s a (Paul) Cronin team. They make adjustments all through the game.
“That defense alone will win the state championship for them. All of them — the defensive line, the linebackers, the defensive backs — they play so well together as an unit.”
I reminded Tomlin that his quarterback, Jack Rice, could really turn the corner and run downhill, an expression that explains how the field is tilted in his favor.
“Jack is a great player and he will do well in (NCAA) Division I,” Tomlin said. “He’s already got offers from the Air Force Academy and Sacramento State.”
Rice came into the game averaging 380 yards offense a game. He scored 66 percent of his team’s touchdowns, accumulated 60 percent of the Crusaders’ total yardage. But for this game Saturday night, Rice was 11-of-22 for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He ran 19 times for 94 yards. Those numbers certainly aren’t inconsequential, mere confetti to be tossed away. But much of that yardage came late in the game, with two touchdowns of 49 and 68 yards. Those weren’t fluke plays. The kid can play.
“But it’s the adjustments Cronin makes,” Tomlin said. “He’s just the best high school coach in California, in my opinion.”
This is the point that Tomlin was asked about the one piece of strategy in this game that could be judged as significant. It was the beginning of the second quarter. Newman was leading 20-6, but it was an uncomfortable 20-6.
On the third play of the game Rice threw his first pass of the game. It was a 60-yard touchdown to Isaac Drake. The shock on the Newman sideline had everyone with frozen faces frozen in their tracks. Rice was the real deal.
So even though Newman was ahead, 20-6, it had the appearance of a close game.