It was an imperfect ending to what was an unbeaten season.
Or maybe it was the perfect implosion when Sierra Canyon could least afford it.
No matter, 2015 is officially over for the Trailblazers.
Sierra Canyon let a 21-point lead evaporate against the San Marino Titans, who scored 22 points in the fourth quarter to pull out a thrilling 36-35 victory Saturday, Dec. 12, in the CIF State Open Division (Small Schools) regional playoff.
The capper for San Marino was a one-yard run by Mark Wicke with 1:11 to play. San Marino, without hesitation, went for a two-point conversion to win the game. Wicke ran toward the right corner of the end zone and dove in despite getting hit hard enough by two Sierra Canyon defenders that he twirled like a helicopter blade.
The victory puts the still undefeated Titans (15-0) into the Open Division championship game against unbeaten Central Catholic of Modesto (15-0) on Dec. 19 at Sacramento State University.
Sierra Canyon (14-1), which won the Southern Section’s Mid-Valley Division championship the week before, will pack away its helmets and pads a little sooner than it planned.
“There was a lot of places this game turned,” Sierra Coach Jon Ellinghouse said. “I’m still kinda stunned. But I’ll tell you what; [San Marino] played a good game, and they definitely had a good comeback. We lost by a point. We’ll pick ourselves up and move on.”
Perhaps. But this one may take some time to shake out of the Trailblazers’ collective conscience.
It’s not as if Sierra Canyon was playing some lucky stiff. San Marino was also a Southern Section champion, winning the Central Division (after being moved from the Mid-Valley). The Titans had one of the best passing attacks in Southern California, featuring senior wide receiver Caleb Shohfi who had already caught more than 100 passes and collected more than 2,000 receiving yards on the season.
But so much went right for the Trailblazers in the first three quarters, that it was hard to imagine that anything — and everything — would go wrong in the final 12 minutes.
Sierra Canyon’s offensive line consistently opened huge holes for running back Bobby Cole, who had seven rushes of 10 yards or more, including bursts of 34, 35 and 46 yards. Cole would finish with 248 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Quarterback Niko Harris was an efficient 17 for 23 passing for 139 yards, with three touchdown passes to receivers Dylan Tait, Kohl Hollinquest and Sam Shadorf.
The Trailblazers’ defense also made itself seen and felt.
It knocked Titans starting quarterback Carson Glazer — who had thrown for 157 yards and two touchdowns — out of the game midway though the second quarter with a jarring tackle. Glazer did not return, and the Titans alternated Blake Cabot and Wicke behind center the rest of the way.
It preserved the Trailblazers’ 21-14 halftime lead with a goal-line stand, denying the Titans three times from the two-yard line.
But even though the Trailblazers expanded their lead with two third quarter touchdowns, and were pounding away at the Titans with Cole’s power rushes, they couldn’t break San Marino’s spirit or belief it could win. Nor could Sierra Canyon fully neuter San Marino’s passing attack. Even with second- and third-string quarterbacks, the Titans collectively completed 20 of 40 pass attempts for 367 yards.
In the fourth quarter, trailing 35-14, a San Marino offense that appeared flustered and contained came alive. One of the key reasons was Shohfi (10 receptions for 232 yards and a touchdown), who was catching everything coming his way no matter who was throwing.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Canyon offense that seemed so dominant began to disappear. It’s only scoring threat came early in the fourth quarter, when Harris missed a 30-yard field goal attempt.
The Titan-ic rally began with an 80-yard drive in five plays that was helped along by three critical Trailblazers penalties, two of them for late hits. Michael Chan, the Titans’ main running threat (12 carries for 97 yards), rumbled into the end zone from 23 yards out at the 8:31 mark. Even though San Marino missed the extra point, it had cut the lead to 35-20.
San Marino’s defense got a quick three-and-out against Sierra Canyon, and immediately struck on its next offensive play: Cabot hooked up with Shohfi on a 44-yard touchdown pass, and Cabot added a two-point conversion on a pass to Aiden Santino. The Titans now trailed only 35-28; Sierra Canyon was wobbling, the home crowd was roaring, and there were still more than seven minutes left on the clock.
Sierra Canyon could only keep the ball a couple of minutes before giving it back to San Marino. Although the Titans’ drive its own 18, there was no urgent rush to get down the field, now with the Trailblazers’ defense unable to stop them.
The pivotal play came with 1:41 remaining. Cabot — who only completed 6 of 18 attempts for 84 yards — threw a perfect out pass to Shohfi, who gathered the ball for his final reception at the Sierra Canyon 1-yard line. Wicke scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on the next play.
Sierra Canyon had 64 seconds remaining when it got the ball back, and had reached the Titans’ 30 yard-line with 14 seconds to play. But a holding penalty moved them back 10 yards. Harris got the 10 yards back on a pass play, but could not get the Trailblazers lined up in time to spike the ball before time expired.
“Penalties. We made stupid mistakes,” lamented linebacker Tanner Sommer. “There’s nothing else…penalties killed us.”
“It’s one of those games we’ll look back on and think of a 1,000 ways we could have done things differently,” Ellinghouse said. “We’d had success running the ball, and at the end we were [still] hangin’ our hat on the run. That’s who we’ve been the last couple of months. That’s how we got here. I wanted to put the game in Bobby Cole’s hands if I could.”
Ellinghouse also hoped his players wouldn’t spend the rest of the school year chewing on the loss.
“I’d rather them remember them winning a championship, how that felt, as opposed to the pain of this,” the coach said. “These are good kids and they fought their butts off. I’m proud of what they did.”
Cole, a junior, sounded as if he couldn’t wait to start training camp.
“In times like that, when you’re facing adversity like that late in the game, you’ve got to come back fired up. I feel like we just couldn’t close the deal,” Cole said. “But we’re gonna come back next year with a chip on our shoulder. And we’re gonna close the deal.”
Unfortunately, seniors like Sommer won’t get another chance.
“It’s important that we won [the Mid-Valley title]; I’m very thankful we did and I’m very proud of my [teammates] for winning CIF. But we had so much potential to do more. I feel like we could have gone to the [state final]. But it is what it is at this point.”