Everything that is exciting, dangerous, frightening, inspiring, and heartbreaking about football came into play last Friday night when the Bishop Diego High Cardinals tried to break through the barrier of the CIF Southern Section semifinals.
Bishop Diego’s lineup was laden with seniors who made it to the semis for the third consecutive year. It was their mission to play for the championship of the Northwest Division, and in the final 30 seconds of Friday’s game, they were eight yards away from accomplishment. Standing in their way was the sturdy defense of the Nordhoff Rangers, the defending CIF champions from Ojai.
The marquee matchup, Bishop Diego’s first home play-off game in three years, brought a crowd of 5,000 to SBCC’s La Playa Stadium. The two well-coached teams pulled out all the stops. Bishop tried a fake punt; Nordhoff faked a field goal. The defenses stopped both plays. Bishop’s first touchdown came after a 42-yard pass from Gabe Molina to Anthony Carter, who alternates at the quarterback position with Molina. Nordhoff got rolling on a 56-yard burst by running back Matt Woodcock.
There was a critical turnover. Late in the first half, leading 14-10, the Cardinals fumbled deep in Nordhoff territory. The Rangers brought the ball out to midfield, and on the last play of the half, Cooper Garcia boomed a 50-yard field goal to make the score 14-13.
At 5:12 in the third quarter, the clock stopped and the stadium went silent. Molina, who tried to stop a bruising 10-yard run by Woodcock, lay flat on the turf. Ralph Molina was among the first to check on his son.
“Gabe took a shot to the head,” said Molina, a longtime assistant coach and former player at Bishop Diego. “I saw him moving, but his neck hurt, and we weren’t going to take any chances.” Paramedics and an ambulance were on standby, and they carefully removed the player on a stretcher during a prolonged time-out — a Hail Mary pause.
Ralph Molina went back to coaching after Gabe went off to the hospital with his mother. “I know it’s scary seeing the ambulance on the field, but a lot of stuff looks worse than it is,” Molina said. “I’m a police officer. I’ve seen a lot of kids in the ER. There’s a risk in every sport, but I’ve seen horrible things happen to kids who don’t play sports.”
When the game resumed, the Cardinals seemed a bit deflated. Garcia nailed his third field goal of the game to put Nordhoff ahead, 16-14. And now, because of Molina’s injury, Bishop’s two-quarterback system was reduced to one quarterback.
Carter took up the challenge. He led the Cardinals to a touchdown in three big plays: a 34-yard pass to Thomas Lash; a 22-yard scamper by Daniel Molina, Gabe’s younger brother; and a brilliant 27-yard scoring dash by Aidan Williams after Carter flipped him a short shovel pass. The Cardinals led, 21-16.
The Rangers came right back after a short kickoff and a long return set them up at the Bishop 33. Woodcock’s TD run and a two-point conversion put them ahead, 24-21. It was the sixth lead change of the game.
In the fourth quarter, the Cardinals’ defense came up with two stops to keep them within three points. With 3:06 remaining, the offense took over at its own 20. Carter, who also played safety on defense, was fighting exhaustion. He had no choice but to suck it up and make plays. He completed six consecutive passes. B.J. Murillo snagged a 20-yarder in Nordhoff territory. Daniel Molina’s reception gave the Cardinals a first-and-goal at the eight with 28 seconds remaining.
“I really thought we had it,” Bishop head coach Tom Crawford said.
A spike on first down stopped the clock. On second down, Carter’s pass into the end zone fell incomplete. There were 23 seconds remaining. On third down, Carter dropped back to pass, and a fierce rush by Nordhoff forced him to retreat. He desperately threw the ball toward the end zone, but it came up short and was picked off by Nordhoff’s Shane Hersh.
Just like that, Bishop Diego’s hopes of playing El Segundo for the championship this weekend were dashed. The quest of the seniors, who had been on this brink so many times, ended in another frustration.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Crawford proclaimed as the tearful young men gathered around him. “You showed everybody what it takes to compete, day in and day out. When Gabe gets hurt, it puts things into perspective a little bit. It is a game. … This one was a great football game.”
It kicked off a weekend of gridiron drama, experienced on Saturday by those who watched Ohio State versus Michigan — the Wolverines went down to defeat like Bishop Diego on a potential game-winning pass (for a two-point PAT) that was intercepted — and then the incredible Auburn upset of Alabama.
Ralph Molina told the Cardinals, “I’ve been around a long time. I coached here when we didn’t win a game all year. I’m proud to be part of this. I’m proud to have my sons part of this.” He left for the hospital, where Gabe would be released at 1:30 a.m. “He’s got a strained neck, and probably a concussion,” the dad/coach/policeman said. “He’ll be all right.”
Bishop Diego players lingered on the field after Nordhoff departed in triumph. For most of them, it was the last time they would wear their padded Cardinal uniforms. They had pushed and pulled each other through long, sweaty practices, through many wins and few defeats (33-6 in 2011 through 2013), and now they shared the pain of absolute finality.
“There’s no next year,” lineman Jack Braniff said. “We left everything on the field. I couldn’t find a better group of guys to spend the past four years of my life with.”
“It sucks,” said Williams, who scored two touchdowns. “It’s one of the worst feelings.”
“It’s terrible, knowing that it’s over,” tackle Joe Salcedo said. “It hurts knowing we couldn’t come through for our brothers at the end. I’d give anything to have a practice on Monday.”
John Samson, a short and stocky lineman known as “Cowboy,” came over to the 6’6” Salcedo and hugged him tightly. The two went off by themselves and sat together in the end zone for several minutes.
Samson was smiling after the encounter. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Joe and I didn’t know each other before our freshman year. Now we’re best friends. It hurt to lose tonight, but look what we got out of this. We got a friendship for life.”
GAUCHO CINDERELLAS: UCSB, projected to place sixth in Big West women’s volleyball under new head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch, finished as co-champions and will play at the University of San Diego on Friday, December 6, in the NCAA tournament.
For more sports, including a weekly highlight schedule, see independent.com/sports.