Benefield: Cardinal Newman loses a heartbreaker

Cardinal Newman's Tanner Mendoza (2) and Nick Wall (50) console each other after the Cardinals were defeated by Marin Catholic in the NCS Division 3 varsity football championship game between Cardinal Newman and Marin Catholic high schools in Rohnert Park, California on Saturday, December 2, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)



ROHNERT PARK - The moment the public address announcer called out the final score, Cardinal Newman 56, Marin Catholic 59, it started to rain.

Bent at the waist, consoling a teammate was quarterback Beau Barrington. The teammate, Tanner Mendoza, was squatting, face in his hands, crying.

Barrington, who guided the Cardinals to within three points of their 13th North Coast Section title, patted Mendoza on the pads and walked away.

Mendoza crouched alone, then stood up, let out a shriek and walked over to congratulate the Marin Catholic Wildcats who had posted three more points than the Cardinals and put an end to the season, and in Barrington and Mendoza’s case, their high school careers.

The final score at Rancho Cotate High was No. 1 Marin Catholic 59, No. 2 Cardinal Newman 56. It was again Marin Catholic coming away with a Div. 3 North Coast Section championship. It was a wild night of big plays and shootout football, but it was Mendoza, a grinder if there ever was one, who seemed to be Newman’s light. It was Mendoza who was the blood, the sweat, and eventually the tears for Newman.

“It meant everything to me. It’s my last year, with everything that went on, it’s my family and it just got broken up,” Mendoza said. “I’m devastated right now.”

Everything that went on is of course the deadly fire in October that killed 24 people in Sonoma County, destroyed more than 5,100 homes and burned down a significant portion of Cardinal Newman’s campus.

Everything that went on is the team having to travel to El Molino High in Forestville to practice because they are still prohibited from going back to campus.

Everything that went on is going to class in satellite locations for months and not seeing friends and classmates.

Everything that went on is seeing teammates — seniors Barrington, Kyle Carinalli and Nikko Kitchen — show up to practice every day despite having lost their homes in the fire.

“Right now, they mean the world to us, right?” Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. “They worked as hard as you could possibly ask them.”

“They have a special place in my heart because they left everything out there,” he said. “That’s all you can ask your kids.”

Cronin didn’t have to ask Mendoza to leave everything out there. From the opening whistle, it was abundantly clear he did not want his senior campaign to end.

It tookabout 11 seconds and 99 yards to announce to the world that the Cardinals were not ready for this to be over. Mark Boschetti took the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and seemingly put a stamp on the night from the opening bell.

But, despite Mendoza’s efforts, it was not to be.

“He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached,” Cronin said. “He’s just a great player. He plays every snap and he works really hard.”

So ever-present was the senior running back that one might forgive Marin Catholic for thinking that he was, perhaps, handing out No. 2 jerseys and catching a breather here and there.

After Boschetti’s 99-yard sprint on the opening kickoff, Mendoza then punched in a 3-yard run for another touchdown to put the Cardinals up 14-7 with 5:56 to play in the first quarter. With 1:52 to play in the half, he did it again, pounding in a 10-yard run to make it 28-16.

And if Mendoza was making the Wildcats fans miserable all night, he was equally tough on Marin Catholic’s heralded quarterback, Oregon State-bound Spencer Petras. Mendoza was putting Petras under pressure all night.

In the second quarter it was Mendoza who brought the first wave of pressure on Petras that led to a sack by Nick Wall. The next play, Wall dropped Petras again, forcing a rare Marin Catholic punt.

And even when momentum seemed to swing Marin Catholic’s way, it was Mendoza who put the kibosh on it.

Deep in the second quarter, a Cardinal Newman cornerback seemed to have a good shot at a pick, but the ball was bobbled and standout Wildcats receiver Peter Brown grabbed it and took off. He was bound for the end zone when he was tripped up from behind on a diving effort by a Newman defender. That guy? Yup, Mendoza again.

After junior wide receiver Chauncey Leberthon scored in the second quarter to make it 21-10 Newman, it was Mendoza who brought down kick returner Gaven Cooke with a punishing hit that I’m pretty sure the people in the stands felt.

Mendoza came up short only once and even then it ended up with six points. After senior Jason Moran caught a pass from Barrington and turned it into a 47-yard gain, it was Mendoza’s turn. Just as a tease, the running back seemed to let every single Wildcat lay a hand on him, but no one or no five, could bring him down. He eventually succumbed under about 11 Marin Catholic guys on the 1.

Barrington kept it on the next play for a touchdown to make it 56-45 with 11 minutes to play.

In a shootout like Saturday night’s game, it seems odd that a grinder like Mendoza was the proverbial man of the match. But he was everywhere on seemingly every play.

And he was there, at the end, face in hands, utterly distraught that the season no one saw coming came to a stunning end.

They thought they had this one. It was within grasp. But it was not to be.

Cronin said before the game that he didn’t feel, even with all his team has gone through, that they deserved the win. What they did deserve, he said, was a chance to play for the win.

There will be no film study today, no practice Monday. It’s over.

“It’s Sunday,” Cronin said. A family day.

“It’s been a long year.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield.