MEMORIAL FIELD — In many ways, it was a nightmare start to the season for the Bellarmine-Jefferson High football team.
Turnovers, a sprinkling of penalties, an offense breathing on life support at times and a quarterback struggling with a new game plan plagued the frustrated Guards in their season opener Saturday night against Saddleback Valley Christian.
"We did about everything in mistakes," Bell-Jeff Coach Rolando Aguirre said.
As if that wasn't enough, Bell-Jeff had to painfully watch as Joshua Martinez, a team leader at running back and cornerback, was carefully lifted onto a portable stretcher, then carpooled off Memorial Field after being violently taken down by a horse-collar tackle during the game's final two minutes.
But through all the mounting adversity arriving from multiple angles, Bell-Jeff found a way to grind out a climatic 14-7 nonleague win, which was highlighted by the heroics of an unlikely playmaker.
Quarterback Chris Issakanian started the game for the Guards, but quickly struggled to execute their shotgun passing offense. He finished just two of eight for 23 yards, and had an interception and fumble.
"In the heat of the moment, it was a little too much for him," Aguirre said if his quarterback, who was getting his first taste as a starter. "Sometimes that happens. He's a tremendous kid. He did tremendous during the summer in passing. We destroyed teams."
With the game still scoreless in the second quarter, Aguirre scrapped the passing spread offense in favor of a double-wing, two tailback, run-heavy scheme.
"I hadn't used the double wing since last year," he said. "I don't' even practice it, but I've always done it."
Backup Johnny Karalis was handed the quarterbacking duties for Bell-Jeff. Karalis is a 5-foot-11, 145-pound sophomore who made his first appearance as a signalcaller.
"We really didn't know what quarterback we were going to use today," Karalis said.
Though he attempted just three passes, good for 40 yards, two tosses went for touchdowns. Both occurred on critical fourth-down plays.
"I was nervous before the game," Karalis admitted. "During the game, I was just all into it."
His first scoring pass was on a fourth-down-and-five play from the Saddleback Valley 18-yard line. Karalis found Martinez streaking into the right side of the end zone on a corner pattern with just 2:10 to go before halftime.
The ensuing extra point attempt from placekicker David Bustillos was booted wide left.
Bell-Jeff took a 6-0 advantage into intermission.
On the first possession of the third quarter, however, Saddleback Valley battled back.
Quarterback Ryan Bialobreski threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to running back Curran John, who leaked out of the backfield, reeled in the football and exploded through the Guards' secondary. Brandon Castle kicked the extra point through for the Warriors, who took a 7-6 lead.
With just 5:07 remaining in the game, Karalis' fourth-down magic struck again. This time, Bell-Jeff faced a fourth-and-11 situation from the Saddleback Valley 22-yard line.
Aguirre called a timeout to dial up the play for his team. The instructions were simple.
"What happened was I told them, 'If we don't get this, we're really going to be in trouble because time is running out,'" Aguirre recounted. "I said, 'Look men, it's fourth down. We're going to go for it. This is what we're going to do: Johnny, you're just going to drop straight back and we're going to send Micah [Shirley] on a corner pattern — they can't guard it."
Out of the double-wing formation, Karalis faked a handoff toward the right side, stepped back and delivered the ball to Shirley, who broke left. Shirley caught the pass, shed a tackler and headed into the endzone for the game-deciding score.
"He doesn't get rattled. He plays hard," Aguirre said of Karalis. "He doesn't get caught in the heat of the moment and he just played the game."
Karalis said: "I just didn't want to choke or anything. I just took a step back and bulleted it to Micah."
He believed the Warriors were caught off guard by the final scoring play call.
Bell-Jeff went back up, 12-7.
Martinez, who also had an interception in the first quarter, ran in the two-point conversion, putting the Guards up, 14-7, with 4:55 to go.
Shirley had 13 carries for 71 yards, along with two receptions for 22 yards.
Martinez' injury occurred on the final possession of the game, when he rushed for 27 yards on a toss-sweep, but was brought down by the collar from behind.
"I don't teach that to any of my kids," Aguirre vented. "It happens."
Aguirre said Martinez was responsive and appeared to be OK, but he was taken to a local hospital. The coach confirmed Tuesday that Martinez broke his leg and has already had surgery and four pins inserted into his leg.
"A victory doesn't mean much because of this. You'd kind of rather lose it if he wasn't hurt," Aguirre said. "It's a real big loss for us."
Bell-Jeff linebacker Robert Gomez intercepted quarterback Brandon Camarillo-Towles, which helped set up the Guards' first touchdown. Robert Guevara blocked a running punt attempt by Castle.