HAYWARD – An emotional rollercoaster ride of a season for the Justin-Siena High School football team came to a close in the first round of the CIF North Coast Section Division 4 playoffs Saturday night, as the 12th-seeded Braves fell 35-0 to No. 5 Moreau Catholic.
From the North Bay fires leading to the cancellation of two weeks of games and practices to chaos in the administration alongside an abnormally high number of injuries, it was somewhat surprising the Braves (3-6) had not only reached the postseason but were able to play a respectable first half at Al Vermeil Field.
“I think the hardest thing about today is that the score on the scoreboard did not reflect what happened out on the field tonight,” Justin-Siena head coach Brandon LaRocco said.
Justin-Siena trailed only 14-0 at halftime and looked like a completely different squad on its first drive of the second half, with quarterback Barrett Donohoe connecting on multiple short passes for decent yardage. After the junior hit Rolando Herrera in stride down the middle of the field on a tight end route, all the momentum appeared to be on the Braves’ side as they marched into the Mariners’ red zone.
“I am really proud how our guys came out to start the second half,” LaRocco said. “That is the best response from adversity we have gotten from this team all season long.”
Everything came crashing down with just one play, however. Donohoe threw a pass into tight coverage and the ball was intercepted by two-way player LJ Anderson. On the return, Donohoe was injured from a blindside block and needed help to get over to the sidelines.
On the next play, Anderson broke off a 93-yard touchdown run to put Moreau Catholic (6-5) up 21-0.
Donohoe was checked out and, after a Braves’ offense quarterbacked by senior Ronnie Caretti Jr. went three-and-out, returned to lead the offense – but not before Anderson had added another scoring run to make it 28-0 near the end of the third quarter.
After Anderson ran for his fourth score of the night early in the fourth quarter for a 35-0 lead, a running clock brought the game to a quick finish.
“I think when Barrett went down on the first drive of the second half, it really popped our bubble,” LaRocco said. “Ultimately, that play is what took the wind out of our sails tonight.
“Moreau Catholic is one of the top four teams in North Coast Section Division 4. They were projected to be the 2 or 3 seed all season long before they lost to James Logan a couple weeks ago. That is a fantastic football team we played with tonight.”
The Braves’ offense struggled during the first half, gaining only 32 total yards.
Their defense, on the other hand, held strong in many key situations. The first one came on the Mariners’ first drive of the game. Moreau Catholic used a wildcat formation, with backup running back Fresh Ison, that was quickly figured out by the Braves defense. The hosts quickly got near the Justin-Siena red zone, but were forced to kick a 30-yard field goal after a failed 11-play drive. Hayden Moses’ kick missed just to the right, keeping the game scoreless.
Stepping up majorly for the Braves on that drive were defensive linemen Ret Torkelson and Herrera.
“We played tough on defense tonight. I was really proud of the defense,” LaRocco said. “They got put in some bad situations, but were able to come out of it.”
The Mariners got on the board on the first play of the second quarter, as quarterback Onijai Sellers connected with favorite wide receiver Anderson on a 28-yard passing touchdown. The pass was first of the game for Sellers, who had sat on the sidelines for most of the first quarter.
The Braves kept Moreau Catholic’s athletic offense in check for most of the first half, holding two of the top running backs in the Bay Area to a combined 51 yards on 13 carries.
But the hosts landed a gut punch right before halftime, as Sellers found Adonis Forrest on a broken-play screen pass on the right side and the senior took it 55 yards for the score.
The Justin-Siena offense was quite young this season, with eight juniors and one sophomore starting. The Braves have potential heading into next season, with NCS Division 4 seeming like one of the most level playing fields in all of the NCS.
“I am optimistic for next season because we were so young this season,” LaRocco said. “Barrett is just so close and if we are just able to give him some time in the pocket, he is going to be able to do some special things for us.”
Other players to keep an eye on next season include cornerback Solomone Anitoni, linebacker John Horn, defensive end Miles Williams and offensive lineman Julio Lopez.
After Justin-Siena missed the playoffs last season for one of the few times in 20 years, this year was all about bouncing back. With one of the toughest preseason schedules in the North Bay, it was not an easy road for the former small school power.
“A big goal this season was to get Justin-Siena back into the playoffs. This season is not how I thought we would get back in, a non-traditional way, but we got back in,” LaRocco said.