REDWOOD CITY — Language evolves with every generation, and the kids who made the short bus ride here Friday night from Santa Teresa High School are no exception. Only for them, the chance to put their stamp on any title talk is more than a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
The word of the night, from senior quarterback Jayden Arevalo: “Straps.”
What better descriptor to ascribe to the Saints’ defense, which locked down in a goal-line stand with less than 2 minutes to play and made life difficult all night for the home team, top-seeded Sequoia, to power the fourth-seeded road underdogs into their first CCS championship game since 1987.
Despite a fumbled punt return and a blocked punt that both led to turnovers and a late onside kick recovered by their opponents, the Saints’ defense didn’t buckle. They protected the lead that Arevalo delivered with his big plays, and a little while later, they were able to further expand their vernacular.
“We’re going to the ‘chip! We’re going to the ‘chip!” Arevalo jumped and chanted with his teammates, after their 31-18 semifinal win over Sequoia. This team’s elders, Arevalo and his fellow seniors, were nearly two decades away from being born the last time Santa Teresa football players have spoken those words.
“It’s so special to me and so special to this team,” the quarterback said of the stakes after totaling 169 yards from scrimmage, including a 56-yard touchdown run that put them ahead by two scores entering halftime. “It means everything to everyone.”
Coach Steve Papin considered it a hump climbed, both personally and collectively. Papin, in his second season at Santa Teresa, had come up one win shy at three previous stops. The Saints were ousted in tough fashion in last year’s semifinals.
This year, they went 2-3 in league play and finished fourth in their division. Entering the postseason, they had lost three of their past four games, though two in overtime and all by one score. Next weekend, they will play No. 3 seed Branham for the Division IV CCS championship.
“We’ve never said we want to win a league championship,” Papin said. “We want to get to the CCS championship, and we’re here.”
Papin was happy to be fishing celebratory ice cubes out of his hoodie, despite the brisk conditions.
“It’s worth it,” he said. “I’ll take it.”
Despite opening a 31-12 advantage on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Saints couldn’t celebrate until Arevalo had taken the final knee. Sequoia immediately responded with a 75-yard touchdown strike — senior quarterback John Larios to senior receiver Jack Elgaaen, who shed one tackler, then another, and was off to the races — and recovered the ensuing onside kick, still with more than 10 minutes to play.
But as Sequoia neared the red zone again, threatening to cut the deficit within one possession, Larios came under pressure. He tried to improvise, but senior linebacker Jeffrey Kerr knocked the ball from his hands, and senior defensive end Ian Quintero recovered it for Santa Teresa.
A 31-18 lead, 7 minutes to play, and possession?
Forgive the visiting sideline for any premature adulation.
It took one, final defense stand to secure the win after the second special-teams disaster struck.
After running a few minutes of clock but stalling around midfield, Sequoia junior Luke Holmes broke through the line of scrimmage and blocked the Santa Teresa punt; within two plays, the Ravens were 3 yards from the end zone. An earlier snafu on a punt return had set up Sequoia’s first scoring drive.
But the Saints could breath again four players later, as Sequoia’s junior running back, Luke Ulrich, lay on the turf with his head buried in his hands. He hadn’t moved from the spot he was tackled, inches shy of the pylon, on a failed fourth-down run.
Ulrich rushed for 81 yards and two TDs on 20 attempts; Larios scrambled for another 57 on the ground. But when they needed three yards to stay in the game, Santa Teresa’s defense prevailed.
“Oh, my god,” Arevalo said. “We wouldn’t win half the games without (the defense). … Lock down. Give nothing up. That’s straps.”
Santa Teresa senior Joshua Reyes led all rushers with 96 yards on 19 carries and scored two TDs.
His first score capped an 11-play response to Sequoia’s first scoring drive — after Santa Teresa fumbled a punt return and set up Sequoia on its side of the 50 — and gave the Ravens the lead, 10-6, which they wouldn’t relinquish.
Senior Evan Smith also contributed 60 yards on 10 attempts, including a 29-yard touchdown run that made it 24-12 midway through the third quarter.
Reyes scored the Saints’ final points, after officials blew dead what would have been another Arevalo touchdown.
The QB would have had an easy six points on an option-keeper from 7 yards out, but officials blew the play dead when the fake ball carrier was tackled. Despite protestations from the Santa Teresa sideline, the honest mistake proved meaningless, as Reyes scored just as easily on the next play.
Both the negated touchdown and Arevalo’s 56-yarder were plays called by the quarterback, Papin said. The coach made sure to note that he’s been referring to his senior quarterback as “Aaron Rodgers” all week.
“It was a pass play originally,” Arevalo said of his TD run before halftime. “There was no one open, so I decided I was going to make a play for my team. I made a couple moves and went up the sideline. Number five (Noah Gardere) made the block that got me into the end zone. I was just trying not to fall. I was stumbling, so I just dove into the end zone.”
A win would have been nearly as momentous for Sequoia, which was searching for its first championship berth since 2010. Instead, the Ravens will take solace in a 10-win season, one shy of matching a school record.
More players were fighting back tears than not when the huddle broke from an extended postgame address by coach Rob Poulos. It was only the school’s fourth appearance in the section playoffs. To reach the semifinal, they won a double-overtime thriller in the first round.
“As much as this wasn’t how we wanted this game to go,” he said, “that was our first blocked punt of the season. That was our first recovered onside kick of the season. We just kept giving ourselves chances and just kept playing and kept fighting. I love that.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted, but oh my god, kids just taking shots and making plays and living life on the edge –”
The coach was interrupted by one of his players, tears in his eyes, and embraced him.
“Come here, come here,” he said, wrapping him in his arms and putting his mouth to his ear. “You made plays. You balled out. Process over results.”
He sent the kid on his way and returned his attention to the interview.
“I don’t believe in building blocks,” Poulos said. “This was a successful season. Next year’s its own animal.”