Santa Rosa Cardinal Newman's football team will have a rare opportunity to end its season the way it began it when it plays the first game of the inaugural CIF State Football Championship Bowl Games on Saturday in Carson.
Their opponent in the 11 a.m. game at the Home Depot Center, Westlake Village Oaks Christian, has won 45 games in a row, currently the state's longest winning streak. In its opener, Cardinal Newman defeated visiting Modesto Central Catholic, 22-14, ending the state's previous longest active winning streak at 61 games.
Playing the underdog role is nothing new for the Cardinals, who have won at least three other games this season in which they were thought to be underdogs.
"It fuels us," said Brian Hutton, the team's leading rusher. "Just looking at [Oaks Christian], they look like every other team. We don't see them as monsters."
Oaks Christian (14-0), led by Notre Dame-bound quarterback Jimmy Clausen and several other players who have committed to Division I colleges, are ranked second in the state behind Division I finalist Concord De La Salle by CalHiSports.com.
Cardinal Newman (13-1) is ranked No. 18 and has only one player who has accepted a scholarship offer, offensive lineman Al Netter, who has committed to Northwestern.
Coach Paul Cronin said he would try to motivate his players by emphasizing the privilege of playing an additional game in a venue that's unmatched in Sonoma County.
"Our focus will be to play the best card we can play and focus on ourselves," he said. "We have a group that's a two-time section champion, they're confident and they're excited."
This season has marked a number of milestones for Cardinal Newman.
The Cardinals had never played a night game in the school's 41-year history until their season opener against Central Catholic, when they ended the state's second longest all-time winning streak behind De La Salle's 151-game run from 1992 to 2004. The victory also turned out to be the difference in the Cardinals getting the edge over Central Catholic for the state final berth.
In its only loss, Cardinal Newman fell to Santa Rosa Montgomery, 27-24, but avenged that defeat with a 39-0 victory over the Vikings in the playoffs. The Cardinals followed that with a 28-22 victory over Hayward in the North Coast Section's Class 3A final last week.
Altogether, the Cardinals defeated 10 teams that went on to play for a section title and six that won league titles.
"We had a nice run," said Cronin, a former standout quarterback at nearby Piner High who is now in his fifth season at Cardinal Newman.
Oaks Christian, by comparison, was expected to be tested only once this season, against Ventura St. Bonaventure in late September. The Lions responded with a 59-13 victory, ending St. Bonaventure's 27-game winning streak.
Even with the loss of USC-bound running back/linebacker Marc Tyler to a broken leg in a 70-9 first-round victory over Playa del Rey St. Bernard, Oaks Christian wasn't slowed in its next three Northwest Division playoff games, winning by an average score of 47-12.
Cardinal Newman will counter with Hutton, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior who has rushed for 1,767 yards and 27 touchdowns, and quarterback Ryan Lingle, who has thrown for 2,368 yards and 23 touchdowns with six interceptions.
Those are lofty numbers, but they pale in comparison to those compiled by Clausen and the combination of Tyler and Marshall Jones, his successor who has also committed to USC. Clausen has passed for 3,334 yards and 48 touchdowns with three interceptions, and the running backs have combined for 2,314 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Because of the publicity generated by Clausen & Co., the Cardinals have been able to track them through various media outlets as they stampeded their way to the state title game.
"They're the best team I've seen so far," Lingle said.