Dons stage dramatic comeback
Cathedral Catholic's march to the state title game was pretty much a drama-free endeavor.
But closing the deal on a perfect season was an entirely different matter for the Dons, who survived a frantic fourth quarter to defeat St. Mary's of Stockton 37-34 in the Div. II State Championship Bowl at the Home Depot Center in Carson on Dec. 20.
The Dons improved their perfect overall record for the season to 14-0 as they extended a winning streak going back to last season's 21 games.
Cathedral Catholic was making its first appearance in the State Championship Bowl, which started in 2006. They are just the second San Diego County team to win the title, following Oceanside last season.
Cathedral Catholic standout running back Tyler Gaffney set a state bowl record, rushing for 339 yards and five touchdowns on 33 carries.
Gaffney's 51-yard scoring scamper with just under five minutes remaining in the game put the Dons ahead 37-34 for good in a game that featured four lead changes in a five-minute stretch.
"At the beginning of the season we set three goals," Dons coach Sean Doyle said. "The first was to win Eastern League and we got that, the second was to win (the San Diego Section title) and we got that, and then to not just go to the state title but to win it. We're all on Cloud Nine right now!"
Gaffney's run followed a deflating 96-yard kickoff return that gave St. Mary's a 34-30 lead moments earlier.
"A lot of teams can fold in that situation and I just didn't see them do that," Doyle said. "This is a team that really believes in each other and they hung tight and I think that's why they got it done."
But getting it done was never this hard.
The Dons outscored their previous opponents by an average margin of 32 points, with all 13 wins decided by double digits - their closest game was a 31-21 victory over Mira Mesa of San Diego on Oct. 24.
But they found themselves up against what was by far their toughest opponent.
St. Mary's quarterback Cody Vaz set a state bowl record for passing yards with 336. He completed 31 of 46 pass attempts and threw for four touchdowns.
The two teams combined for more than 1,000 yards of total offense, with Cathedral Catholic setting a state bowl record with 590.
Dons quarterback Parker Hipp completed 9 of 11 pass attempts for 191 yards.
The Dons were 4 for 4 on fourth down attempts, highlighted by a trick play late at a critical stage of the game.
Trailing 27-23 midway through the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-seven at the St. Mary's 32, the Dons turned to a pitch and pass play, with Hipp pitching the ball off to Gaffney, who started running toward the right sideline and then pulled back and threw to Hipp on the opposite side of the field.
Hipp took the ball to the St. Mary's 1-yard line, setting up a Gaffney scoring run on the next play.
Doyle said his coaching staff wanted to use the play earlier in the game, but Hipp convinced them to keep it in their back pocket.
"When a guy like Tyler has the ball everybody's going to stop him so that opened a couple of big option plays for us," Doyle said. "(Hipp) was wide open, they weren't even looking at him anymore.
Doyle said this year's team ranks among the best the accomplished program has produced, right up there with a 1998 San Diego Section title team that lost just one game, the 1999 squad that defended the title despite an 0-5 start, and the 1994 section championship squad.
What stands out about this year's team, however, is the camaraderie, Doyle said.
"We haven't been a team that has Div. 1 prospects at every position, but we have a bunch of kids who love to play high school football and they play it well," Doyle said.