Less than six months after taking over the St. Anthony football program, Raul Lara found himself coaching in a CIF Championship game, looking to guide the Saints to a Division 10 championship against Northview High. Despite taking an early lead, things didn’t fall St. Anthony’s way on Friday night, and the host Vikings emerged with a 27-20 over Lara and the Saints.
Despite a bitter end to the season, the improvement made by St. Anthony over the course of Lara’s first year is difficult to ignore. The Saints lost their first three games and were unsure if they’d even qualify for a playoff berth, much less make a run to a title game.
“Right before we came out here, before the game, I told the kids they were champions. They were champions already in my heart,” Lara said. “The reason I told them that is because they achieved so much this year. We were 0-3, nobody expected us to be here at the championship game. So the run that we had and the improvements that we made during this year was great.”
St. Anthony got off to a great start, getting a stop from its defense on the opening drive, then striking for a big play to take the lead. Conor Hochberg tossed a swing pass out to Kweku Claybrook, who raced up the right sideline untouched for a 68-yard TD to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
But for the rest of the first half, the Saints offense stalled out. Senior running back Sone Aupiu has been a force all season, racking up over 2,000 all-purpose yards, but he was held to just six yards on seven carries in the opening half.
“They did a pretty good job of controlling the line of scrimmage,” Lara admitted. “And we were having trouble executing, I knew they were smaller upfront and they’re quicker, so we knew that was going to be an issue. The coach over there does a pretty good job of getting their guys to play really hard, and that was something that we’ve been talking about all week. I think their intensity really helped them.”
Meanwhile, the Vikings were able to find success with their running backs. Senior Ronal Tebo had a pair of short rushing touchdowns in the first half to stake Northview to a 14-7 lead at intermission, meanwhile his backfield mate Cheo Medina ran 20 times for 112 yards and a score.
Medina’s touchdown opened the scoring in the second half as he broke off a 54-yard TD scamper to make it 21-7 Vikings. After a failed punt attempt by St. Anthony gave the Vikings good field position, they tacked on a short field goal to take their largest lead, 24-7, with 3:45 left in the third quarter.
On the next play from scrimmage, Aupiu swung the momentum of the game with one big run. After breaking through the line of scrimmage, the senior bounced outside, delivered a crushing stiff arm to a Vikings defender, and rumbled 67 yards for a score, breaking the 24-0 scoring run by Northview.
Aupiu ended up with 133 yards on 15 carries including that touchdown, but he was unable to find consistent running room–he racked up 112 of those rushing yards on two long carries.
Even though he was disappointed to end the season with a loss, Aupiu had nothing but praise for all his team had accomplished this year.
“My team did amazing throughout this whole season,” Aupiu said, “We didn’t think we were gonna make it this far, especially starting off 0-3. Everybody amazed me with how much they worked in practice, film, in the weight room. They all embraced Coach Lara’s teachings and his mindset. I give it all to Coach Lara. He brought this foundation and raised it up pretty high for us. It was a great game and a great season.”
St. Anthony was able to pull within a score on an impressive rushing touchdown by Hochberg, who flipped headfirst over a defender at the goal line to make it a 27-20 game with 48 seconds to play. The Saints were unable to recover the subsequent onside kick, and Northview ran out the clock for the win.
“Obviously, we set a pretty good foundation for St. Anthony and hopefully we can build on that,” Lara said after the game. “Hopefully people are excited now to come to our school and be a part of this new tradition that we’re trying to create here. It’s not bad for our first year being in the championship. I would have loved to win it, but obviously that didn’t happen and hopefully we can build another team up and try to shoot for another one next year.”