A classic rivalry, a confrontation of two head coaches with thirty five years of experience between them, a battle between two teams that combined to win 18 games last season, and a near comeback amidst raucous cheers on a cool, crisp autumn night.
Long live high school football.
The St. Mary’s Panthers (1-1, 0-0) squared off with their longtime rival El Cerrito Gauchos (1-1, 0-0) and fell just 13 yards short of pulling off a comeback victory. Trailing by eight points with just over a minute remaining and possession of the football deep in Gaucho territory, Panther quarterback Jason Washington’s pass fell just in front of diving wideout Omar Young, and the Gauchos escaped with a 27-19 home victory.
St. Mary’s dug themselves a huge hole in the first half when Gaucho running back Chijuke Onyenegecha rumbled for scores of 80, 50, and 25 yards. Onyenegecha’s biggest challenge during the game appeared to be making sure his rushing yards exceeded the number of vowels found in his last name. Onyenegecha took care of that problem by opening with a 50-yard sweep for a score. Two possessions later, he took a perfectly timed screen pass the distance for an 80-yard touchdown. With four minutes left in the first half, Onyenegecha scored on an another sweep from 25 yards out on a drive he kept alive with an 18-yard run on 4th and 11.
Onyenegecha finished the night with 12 carries for 184 yards, 132 receiving yards on two receptions and four touchdowns. Built like former San Francisco 49er Roger Craig with the speed of St. Louis Ram Marshall Faulk — Onyenegecha runs the 100-yard dash in 10.16 seconds — he chugged out all four Gaucho touchdowns despite suffering a calf cramp with 22 seconds left in the first half after returning a kickoff. Onyenegecha also returned punts and deflected passes from his cornerback position. After the game, the one-man wrecking crew they call “Joe-K”commented, “I was just trying to do my best.”
St. Mary’s head coach Dan Shaughnessy knew he had to get the ball in the hands of his main weapon, tailback Trestin George, after the Panthers fell behind by 19 points in the first half. George was stifled by the Gaucho run defense for most of the night before breaking out with a 39-yard touchdown in the second half.
During that initial Panther scoring drive, Shaughnessy utilized three wide receivers for a majority of the plays. Under constant pressure all game long, Washington zeroed in on senior wideout Omar Young as his primary target, and Young delivered with 5 receptions for 106 yards and a 62-yard score.
The Panther defense, under siege most of the night by the rumblings of Onyenegecha, stood tall in the fourth quarter. After Onyenegecha’s 52-yard touchdown in the third quarter gave the Gauchos a 27-7 lead, the Panther defense corralled the Gaucho offense on their next two offensive possessions.
With 2:17 left in the game and a 27-19 Gaucho lead, two time All-American lineman Lorenzo Alexander utilized every bit of his 280-pound frame to block a Gaucho punt that gave the Panthers possession at the Gaucho 13-yard line with a minute and a half left to play. Remarkably, Alexander blocked the punt after suffering an injury "up high" during El Cerrito’s previous offensive possession that Shaughnessy hopes isn’t a bruised rib.
“(El Cerrito) came out, (and) once they scored, they loved it so much they had to do it twice more,” reflected Shaughnessy. “We had to scramble to get back into it.”
The Panthers certainly didn’t give up, and they nearly pulled off an amazing comeback in front of a strong representation of St. Mary’s fans who attended the game.