The Serra Padres sure are quick studies on defense.
For the second straight playoff game, Serra surrendered a touchdown on the opposition’s first possession. And for the second straight week, the Padres’ mighty defense turned up the intensity to lock it down from there.
No. 1 Serra (11-1 overall) rolled to a 27-14 victory over No. 5 Wilcox in the Central Coast Section Division I semifinals Saturday at Freitas Field, knotting it up 7-7 by halftime before counterpunching like world-class prize-fighters for three straight touchdowns in the second half.
“About the middle of the game there it looked like they got away from their bread and butter,” Serra head coach Patrick Walsh said. “… We had kind of known at that point we had taken away their right hand and maybe they went with their left hand, which is what we wanted them to do. And they had some success doing that. But at the end of the day, we knew if we could tackle [Rosa Jr.] on the dive and [Flores] we’d have a successful day on defense, which is what the kids did.”
That “right hand” is Wilcox running back Paul Rosa Jr. The Padres kept him relatively contained, which is to say the 5-8 senior carried 26 times for 167 yards and both the Chargers’ touchdowns.
“He’s awesome,” Wilcox head coach Paul Rosa Sr. said. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached. He plays big every night. ... Four years of him and his career on varsity was big.”
Walsh had some keen insight to the high-tempo, split-back veer offense run by Wilcox, though, as it is the same offense Walsh ran as both a player and coach at De La Salle-Concord. And the Padres’ defense got up to speed in a hurry in slowing down the Chargers, especially in the takeaway department. The Padres recovered four Wilcox fumbles on the day.
“I think, statistically, we saw that at least 80% of their offense was running the dive,” Serra defensive tackle Sioeli Helu said. “That’s right down the A-gap. That’s my gap. So, I just had to hunker down and wait, and just wait, and just wait for the ball to come my way.”
After Rosa Jr. opened the day with a 55-yard carry on Wilcox’s first play from scrimmage, it looked as though Serra’s strategy might be in jeopardy. Five plays later, Rosa Jr. banged into the end zone to give the Chargers a 7-0 lead.
But the Padres stayed true to defensive coordinator Steven Monsef’s game plan. And ultimately won the day.
“We game-planned really well for him,” Serra linebacker Will Mauer said. “[Rosa Jr.] is really downhill runner, very tough and physical. But I’ve got to hand it to [our defensive coaches] they probably gave us literally the best defensive game plan we’ve ever had. They knew exactly what they were going to run … they started calling out plays before they even happened.”
The Serra offense, helmed by sophomore quarterback Dom Lampkin, took some time to find its footing. The Padres’ first two possessions ended in a turnover on downs, followed by an interception by Wilcox linebacker Bryan Escorza.
But the turnover bug saw Mauer recover a fumble between those two possessions. And, when Serra got the ball back again to start the second quarter, Lampkin and company cashed in on tremendous field position.
Wilcox looked to punt from its own 29, but the snap one-hopped punter Isaiah Flores, who recovered late and had no choice but to heave an incomplete pass downfield. The resulting turnover on downs gave the Padres the ball at the Chargers’ 24.
After a penalty, an 11-yard completion from Lampkin to senior Terence Loville but the ball at the 4. Two plays later, Lampkin hit senior slot receiver Nate Sanchez for a short touchdown pass to tie it 7-7.
Then in the second half, Wilcox opened with possession and attempted to alter its approach by playing sideline to sideline. But the third-quarter prowess of Serra — a staple of the defensive approach all year — got a big momentum swing when senior defensive end Nusi Malani recovered a fumble at the Padres’ 30.
“It also shows a great deal of resiliency and belief in our process,” Walsh said of his team’s ability to recover from early deficits. “And our process, starting in 2018, was: Let’s build a team that can play for 48 minutes for multiple weeks. And they’ve proven that, and now we’re going to be playing for a CCS championship.”
By the end of the third, Serra took charge, scoring twice in the final 3:17 of the quarter.
Sophomore running back Hassan Mahasin busted a 32-yard score off the left side to give the Padres a 13-7 lead. Then after a quick three-and-out — highlighted by a Mauer sack on third down — the Padres got a big punt return from Loville, then went right back to Mahasin for an 8-yard touchdown score.
Wilcox fumbled twice more down the stretch, including a forced fumble on a backward screen that Loville read like a champ and batted away. The ball was ruled live, however, and Serra sophomore Malakai Hoeft scooped it up for the score.
“There’s a lot of ball movement, and we knew that,” Walsh said. “Get your hands in there, fight for the football, punch it out. And these are games that come down to possessions, and Coach Monsef and the defensive staff put a great emphasis on attacking the mesh point and getting the football out. It’s great when an emphasis gets proven on the field. So, I’m proud of the kids for that.”
Wilcox scored on its final possession with Rosa Jr. finishing his four-year varsity career with a 49-yard score.
Serra now advances to the CCS Division I championship game to face a familiar opponent in No. 2-seed Valley Christian. The two West Catholic Athletic League co-champs met Nov. 2 with Serra winning 10-0. The CCS title will be settled this Saturday night at Independence High School in San Jose. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.