The Palo Alto and Sacred Heart Prep football teams will be playing for at least another week as they won their respective Central Coast Section first-round playoff games on Friday night. Menlo-Atherton, however, did not.
Although it was extremely impressive for a young Menlo-Atherton team to secure home-field advantage against San Benito in the first round of the CCS Open Division I playoffs, it was perhaps the Bears' inexperience that ultimately knocked them out of the playoffs against the Haybalers on Friday night.
Fourth-seeded Menlo-Atherton committed three turnovers, two in the fourth quarter, and had an extra-point blocked, and the No. 6 Haybalers (7-4) capitalized on the Bears' mistakes to win 21-19.
"In playoff football you can't make mistakes in critical situations," Menlo-Atherton head coach Adhir Ravipati said. "It's one of those things where we'll learn, and hopefully continue to grow as a program."
Despite the errors, Menlo-Atherton (6-5) almost delivered a dramatic comeback, thanks to backup quarterback Aajon Johnson. He entered the game midway through the fourth quarter and completed four passes for 66 yards and a touchdown on his first drive, but threw what proved to be a game-ending interception with less than three minutes remaining.
The normally run-heavy Bears were forced to change their offensive strategy against a tough Haybalers front seven, as Menlo-Atherton threw the ball a season-high 27 times. Running back Jordan Mims became the Bears best receiver, catching seven passes for 124 yards.
"We thought their (defense) gave us an opportunity to take advantage of some things," Ravipati said about the Bears' decision to throw the ball throughout the game. "But, they made some plays on the backend when they needed to."
On defense, Menlo-Atherton had a phenomenal second half, holding San Benito to seven points, but struggled in the first half to contain running back Kyle Cameron.
With the Bears leading 7-0 in the first quarter, Cameron turned on the afterburners, running by the entire Menlo-Atherton defense on an impressive 65-yard touchdown run.
"(Cameron) is one of those guys on film you see when they get him into the second level, he's definitely able to go a little bit," Ravipati said. "He's a really good player, and he showed it tonight."
In the second quarter, Cameron found the end zone again, this time catching a 10-yard pass from quarterback R.J. Clark. Cameron finished the game with 189 yards of total offense.
Menlo-Atherton responded to Cameron's scores with Mims' second touchdown run of the game late in the second quarter, but Ishmael Medina blocked the ensuing extra-point attempt, and Menlo-Atherton went into halftime down by one.
The Bears looked to regain the momentum to start the second half with an onside kick attempt, but the plan backfired, as San Benito tight end Dante Tomasini recovered the ball at the 50-yard line.
Eight plays later, Hunter Nye sprinted nine-yards up the middle for a touchdown, and the Haybalers opened up a 21-13 lead.
With a little over seven minutes left in the game and the Bears trailing by eight, Ravipati elected to remove starter Miles Conrad, who had already thrown two interceptions, and place Johnson under center.
"It was one of those things where we thought late in the game we might have an opportunity to get a little bit of a spark," Ravipati said of the quarterback change.
Starting at the Bears 19-yard line, Johnson led his team on a near picture perfect drive. The junior quarterback completed all four of his pass attempts, ran for 15 yards, and threw a 10-yard strike to Ben Stanley in the end zone that moved the Bears to within two points.
"When we needed (Johnson), he was there to do the job," Mims said.
For the two-point conversion, Conrad came back into the game at quarterback, and handed the ball off to Mims running left. But, the junior running back was tackled at the one-yard line, and the Bears still trailed by two.
"We felt a little bit more comfortable with Miles under center just because he had run that set a little bit more," Ravipati said. "That's one of those things you can obviously look back upon after the game is over, but we thought that was going to give us an opportunity to get Jordan out on the edge."
On the Haybalers' next possession, the Bears forced a three-and-out, helped by a seven-yard loss on a massive sack from defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers.
After a 26-yard punt, Menlo-Atherton took over at the San Benito 35-yard line with three minutes remaining and a seemingly great chance to take the lead.
But, Johnson could not deliver heroics on a second consecutive drive, as the junior quarterback was picked off by cornerback Jake Deidrick on a pass intended for Mims in the end zone.
San Benito ran out the clock with two first downs, ending the Bears' hopes of a comeback.
Despite the heartbreaking finish, Ravipati was impressed with his players' effort, and the overall accomplishments of his football team this season.
"I'm going to tell our seniors they have a lot to be proud of," Ravipati said. "They managed to be co-champions of the PAL after the way we started the season. For a young team I think we've got some momentum, and I don't think tonight changes that."
Palo Alto 42, Salinas 38
The sixth-seeded Vikings stopped host and No. 3 Salinas on fourth down on the 10-yard line with 27 seconds to play to pull off a big victory in the opening round of the CCS Open Division I playoffs on Friday night.
Palo Alto (5-6) had gone ahead on a touchdown pass from Justin Hull to Max Dorward with 3:57 left in the game. The Cowboys (6-5) had marched 16 plays with two minutes to play, but the drive stalled as Paly's defense came up big.
The Vikings next will play at No. 2 Milpitas (9-2) in the semifinals next Friday at 7 p.m. The Trojans routed Alvarez, 46-0, in another first-round game.
Sacred Heart Prep 42, Live Oak 21
The defending CCS Open Division champion Gators rolled into the semifinals of the inaugural Open Division III playoffs by toppling No. 3 Live Oak (9-2) in Morgan Hill.
Sixth-seeded Sacred Heart Prep (8-3) will travel to Watsonville next Friday to face No. 2 Monte Vista Christian (10-1) at 7 p.m. MVC rallied to beat visiting Terra Nova, 34-28, in another first-round game.
SHP senior quarterback Mason Randall completed 11 of 18 passes for 182 yards and an 18-yard touchdown to Andrew Daschbach the final play of the first half. Daschbach caught four passes for 67 yards and senior wideout Nick O'Donnell had five receptions for 104 yards.
SHP senior running back Lapitu Mahoni led the running game with 148 yards on 22 carries with touchdown runs of 9 and 17 yards. Isoa Moimoi provided a one-two punch by adding 99 yards on 16 carries while scoring on runs of 6, 3 and 27 yards. SHP grabbed a 28-14 halftime lead after Live Oak had gotten to within 21-14.
David Peterson had an interception, a sack for a minus 14 yards and a total of eight tackles to pace the SHP defense. Zane Elsafy added seven tackles, including a sack.