CARSON — Every time Corona del Mar High broke a huddle, players said, "Rock and roll." The words are what the Sea Kings heard the night before they attempted to make history on a football field on Saturday afternoon.
Over a team dinner in the Port Streets neighborhood in Newport Beach, those words carried over to the CIF State Division III Bowl Game at the StubHub Center in Carson. The words came from Terry Donahue, UCLA's former football coach who lives on Balboa Island. He gave the Sea Kings the blueprint for success in a big game — focus, execute, impose your will, have fun, and rock and roll.
The Sea Kings ran with Donahue's message, letting it all hang out when they reached the biggest stage of their season. The Sea Kings earned the right to party afterward like rock stars, beating Atherton Sacred Heart Prep, 27-15, to become the first high school football team in California to finish a season 16-0.
Perfect is how CdM capped its historic season. The ride has been a magical one for Coach Scott Meyer, his staff, his players and all of the school's supporters.
Meyer has led the program to unprecedented success — two undefeated Pacific Coast League titles, three CIF Southern Section Southern Division titles, a CIF State Southern California Regional Division III Bowl Game title, a CIF State Division III Bowl Game title and a 40-4 overall record — in his three years in charge. The third season turned out to be the longest and Meyer and the Sea Kings conquered it.
Donahue's talk to the team inspired CdM to secure its place in history.
"He did a fantastic job closing out [our Friday team dinner]," said Meyer, who on game day rehashed to his players what Donahue said. "We had focused all year long, we focused all week, and let's go out and play with perfect execution, and at some point we need to impose our will and finish the game. Then let's make sure we have fun and take it all in. I think we did a pretty good job for the day."
Donahue agreed with Meyer on how his Sea Kings performed against Sacred Heart Prep (13-2) as they pushed their school-best winning streak to 26 games. John Griffin, the father of senior safety Charlie Griffin, relayed a message from Donahue to Meyer after the game.
"Terry Donahue just called," John told Meyer. "He said, 'Thank you for not screwing up his pre-game speech.'"
Meyer broke out laughing. From the way the game began, it appeared nothing could ruin CdM's special day.
The Sea Kings jumped to a 21-0 lead in the opening quarter. They took the game's opening drive and marched 75 yards in 11 plays, finishing it off with quarterback Luke Napolitano's five-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bo St. Geme.
Four and a half minutes in and St. Geme was already getting over on his uncle, Matt Moran, an assistant coach on the Sacred Heart Prep sideline. Moran then saw his nephew jog back onto the field with CdM's offense 11/2 minutes later.
The Sea Kings took over on Sacred Heart Prep's 29 after a bad snap by the Gators went over the punter's head on fourth down, forcing Riley Tinsley to punt the ball on the run. The ball landed two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Napolitano took advantage of the great field position. The senior went on to throw his second touchdown pass, a five-yarder to senior tight end Connor Sage. Everything seemed to go CdM's way, as Napolitano completed six of his first seven passes for 67 yards.
Before the first quarter expired, safety Barrett Barbato helped make it a 21-0 lead for CdM. He caught quarterback Mason Randall staring down a receiver near Sacred Heart Prep's sideline. When the ball went that way, Barbato jumped the pass and intercepted it, returning it for a 58-yard touchdown.
The pick-six turned out to be the second CdM produced in as many games. Eleven seconds remained in the first quarter and it appeared the Sea Kings were on their way to one of their easiest wins of the season.
The CdM defense didn't allow Sacred Heart Prep to do much for the first 15 minutes. When the Gators went for it on fourth-on-13 on CdM's 28, the Sea Kings stopped them on downs.
While Sacred Heart Prep's offense failed to score during its first three possessions, its defense found the end zone with 8:06 left in the first half. Linebacker Andrew Robinson picked off a pass and returned it up the CdM sideline for a 37-yard touchdown. The Gators went for a two-point conversion after an illegal substitution penalty on CdM moved the ball up half the distance to the goal line. Ben Burr-Kirven ran it in to cut the deficit to 21-8.
Burr-Kirven, a bruising 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker, hurt CdM again with the ball.
After CdM punted midway through the second quarter, Burr-Kirven made the Sea Kings pay for punting for the first time. The junior broke off a 47-yard touchdown run and Sacred Heart Prep found itself back in the game, trailing 21-15 with 3:25 left in the first half.
The momentum appeared to shift toward Sacred Heart Prep, which would open the second half with the ball. The Gators didn't have it for long, though.
Randall fumbled the ball on third down and CdM defensive end Parker Chase recovered it on the Gators' 31. The turnover led to CdM Jason Neiger's 31-yard field goal.
"They were pushing us back pretty hard," said Chase, referring to Burr-Kirven, who finished with 77 yards on seven carries, and the Gators' offensive line. "After I got that fumble, we started stopping them."
The Sea Kings' defensive unit pounced on another fumble in the third quarter. Justin Hess, a lineman, fell on the ball after a bad handoff exchange by Randall to Andre Segre. The Gators turned the ball over inside CdM's 20-yard line.
Thirty-three seconds into the fourth quarter, CdM came away with its third fumble of the second half. Hugh Crance, an outside linebacker, recovered a bad pitch by Randall to Burr-Kirven near midfield. The turnover led to a 35-yard field goal by Neiger, who made it 27-15 with 7:11 left.
For the last time, CdM made another defensive stand inside the red zone to pitch a shutout in the second half. Sacred Heart Prep turned the ball over on downs for the second time.
The rest of the way, the Sea Kings ran Cole Martin, who finished with 155 yards on 28 carries, and backup Anthony Battista, who finished with 67 yards on 12 carries. The two running backs, behind left tackle Ian Redman, left guard Michael Pierotti, center Giovanni Gentosi, right guard Brett Olson and right tackle Quinn Bassler, allowed CdM to run out the clock and make history.
"We knew they were a physical team," said Gentosi, who made his 44th and final varsity start of his three-year CdM career. "We knew that as an offensive line we just had to control them and just give it everything we have, [with it] being our last game ever … for all us seniors."
The senior-laden offensive line paved the way in the second half, as CdM rushed for 169 of its 266 yards in the last two quarters.
While Gentosi is one of seven senior offensive starters graduating, three junior receivers, St. Geme and Cole Collins, both of whom finished tied for CdM's single-season receptions record of 60, and Max Chozen will return, along with Martin, a junior, and Battista, a sophomore.
Ten of the 11 defensive starters are juniors. CdM will see Chase and Hess return on the defensive line, along with Harrison Carter and Mat Flores, and twin linebackers Hugh and Hoyt Crance, and Robby Hoffman are coming back, as are three members of the secondary, Barbato and cornerbacks Brett Greenlee and Chad Redfearn.
With all that talent expected back on both sides of the ball, including on special teams with Neiger, a sophomore kicker, the Sea Kings can find themselves back next year making another run this late in the season.
"We're not going to think about that for a little while," said Meyer, whose team deserves to celebrate as much as it wants after wrapping up a flawless season on the road with a little rock and roll.
CIF State Division III Bowl Game
Corona del Mar 27, Sacred Heart Prep 15
SCORE BY QUARTERS
SHP 0 – 15 – 0 – 0 – 15
CdM 21 – 0 – 3 – 3 – 27
CdM – St. Geme 5 pass from Napolitano (Neiger kick), 7:33.
CdM – Sage 5 pass from Napolitano (Neiger kick), 3:55.
CdM – Barbato 58 interception return (Neiger kick), :11.
SHP – Robinson 37 interception return (Burr-Kirven run), 8:06.
SHP – Burr-Kirven 47 run (Tinsley kick), 3:25.
CdM – Neiger 31 FG, 7:37.
CdM – Neiger 35 FG, 7:11.
SHP – Burr-Kirven, 7-77, 1 TD; Segre, 16-54; Hardy, 7-37; Randall, 8-11; Lee, 3-2.
CdM – Martin, 28-155; Battista, 12-67; Napolitano, 7-47; Team, 1-(-3).
SHP – Randall, 10-17-1, 107.
CdM – Napolitano, 7-17-2, 73, 2 TDs.
SHP – Martella, 6-57; Daschbach, 2-24; Burr-Kirven, 1-17; Segre, 1-9.