Benefield: Cardinal Newman relishes triumph in state title game

This one was building.

Cardinal Newman won the 3-AA CIF football championship Saturday night 31-14 over the El Camino Wildcats of Oceanside, and from opening kick you could feel it coming.

You could feel it coming when senior Giancarlo Woods reeled in 35-yard pass from senior quarterback Jackson Pavitt to put the Cardinals up 24-14 in the second quarter.

You could feel it coming when senior Justin Lafranchi grabbed a tipped pass from El Camino quarterback Kiah Reid in the first quarter for this first of two interceptions on the night. You could feel it when senior dual-threat quarterback Pavitt scampered down almost the entire length of the field on a quarterback keeper touchdown in the first quarter that so deflated the El Camino defense that one of their players got tossed as a result.

But truth be told, you could probably feel this one coming at the team's first weight session back in January after their 2018 season ended with an improbable coin flip ginned up by North Coast Section officials as a way of dealing with a compressed playoff schedule as a result of that fall's deadly wildfires.

Or maybe even before that, when the 2017 squad dealt with the destruction of nearly half the campus in the Tubbs fire.

This win was building and on Saturday night, against a big, quick and talented El Camino team that had put together a string of huge playoff upsets, the Cardinal Newman Cardinals delivered on a promise that had been in the air for years.

“It's been a process in the works and we were in due time for something like this,” two-year starter Pavitt said, sporting a crisp, black state champs cap on his head.

Cardinal Newman had been here before. They lost in state title games in both 2006 and 2008 and haven't been back since, after losing to Valley Christian in the Division 2-AA NorCal regional title game three years ago.

And last year's team had the goods before getting sent home by a coin flip. But this year's team had them too. And they also had a fire that a pinch of perceived injustice can give a squad.

The definition of “amends,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “compensation for loss or injury.”

The Cardinal Newman football team sought, on Saturday night on their home field, to make amends for past grievances: The Tubbs fire. The coin flip.

Their mission this season did not feel seasonal - it felt like something a long time coming. Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin likes to say that each team develops its own personality, but this one felt like it had been built on both the successes and the scars of the past.

They were out to make good on past promises teammates had made to each other. Their record through these playoffs says as much. They beat teams by an average of 34 points.

And their defense held an El Camino offense that scored 75 - a section record - against top seed Bishop's in the Division 2 San Diego Section title game to 14 points Saturday night. The defensive unit earned crucial turnovers from a well-oiled Wildcats offense.

The Wildcats' first drive of the game looked foreboding. It was an efficient and lethal march down the field, with Reid finding his favorite target, senior Alexander Fetko, or handing it off to junior Noah Sega.

But, at the 30-yard line, Reid lost the handle on a keeper and Cardinal Newman recovered the fumble.

“It's our aggression. We come out with it every game. It's something we pride ourselves on,” Pavitt said. “We are not necessarily the most menacing looking people just from a standpoint, so when you actually get on the field with us, we like to let our play do the talking.”

And it did.

It was 14-7 Cardinal Newman after one quarter thanks to rushing touchdowns from Shane Moran and Pavitt.

El Camino tied it early in the second but a 31-yard field goal from senior Ethan Kollenborn made it 17-14 and a 35-yard pass play from Pavitt to Woods made it 24-14 at the half.

Pavitt punched in a one-yard keeper early in the third to make it 31-14.

The Wildcats had to know they had a tough assignment coming to Santa Rosa. They were 520 miles from home, playing a Cardinal Newman team that was 13-1 coming into the game and hadn't lost a game on their home field since falling to eventual state champs Liberty in September of 2018.

More than once the student section could be heard chanting “This is our house.” At the end of the game that had morphed into “This is our state.”

El Camino came into this game as a bit of an enigma.

They were 9-6 but an incredibly deceptive 9-6. Their 2-4 record in the Avocado League was the result of going against teams that all competed and advanced in the Open or Division 1 section tournament in San Diego.

Since their four-game skid in October, the Wildcats have reeled off massive wins, upsets nearly all. They can't have walked onto Newman's home field afraid of much. Cal-Hi Sports had the Wildcats the 28-21 favorites.

But Newman never wavered. They made huge plays but they also made the tough, grinding plays that win games. Senior Hunter Graniss got a crucial sack of Reid with just seconds remaining in the first half, ending what looked like another El Camino march.

It was Graniss again with 9:53 to go and Cardinal Newman forced to punt. Graniss reached the lightning-quick Fetko before he had a chance to return Woods' punt for any damage. It was an open field tackle that just put the Wildcats on their heels - and pinned them on the 8-yard line.

After the game, as fans rushed the field, Cronin was a hard man to find. For one, he wasn't wearing the Cardinal Newman sweater he'd had on during the game. That was soaked through after players dumped a Gatorade jug on him. And for two, he was far removed from the bouncing and chanting and crying players. He was 30 yards away, answering reporters' questions, trying to put the night into perspective.

When it was clear the trophy - a wooden piece cut in the shape of California - was being presented at midfield, Cronin barked out mid-sentence, “Hey, get a kid to grab it alright? Get Jackson to grab it.” He never broke stride and never made a move toward the ceremony.

“They are one of the special teams and obviously we will remember them forever because of what happened on the field tonight but there are a lot of teams out there that really sold their hearts out to us,” he said. “And it just carries over year in and year out.”

He acknowledged past teams but didn't want to take away from this group.

“You've got to credit them. They finished it,” he said.

Like I said, this one felt like a long time coming.

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