Veterans of the big games

Cardinal Newman quarterback Matt Sullivan hands off to Stephen Tomasin against Valley Christian on Sept. 17. Kent Porter / The Press Democrat

As the North Coast Section Division 3 playoffs progressed, a lot of people started wondering if Cardinal Newman would have a chance of beating Marin Catholic, the undefeated juggernaut from Kentfield.

We’ll never know. The fourth-seeded Encinal Jets of Alameda overcame a 13-6 deficit and dethroned Marin Catholic in the semifinals, surprising everyone. Except themselves. And Cardinal Newman.
“Encinal just played a better football game that game,” said Newman coach Paul Cronin, who took some of his staff to watch it last Saturday, the day after his team had beaten Miramonte, 42-17, to earn the other spot in the final. “They’ve been really good the last five years. We were talking on the ride down about how Encinal would be a tough matchup for Marin Catholic. We had people scouting both teams.”

Neither of the would-be champions is a stranger to high-pressure games. Cardinal Newman has won 10 NCS titles in various divisions. Most recently, the Cardinals captured Division 2 in 2008. Encinal won Division 3 that year. In 2009, Encinal entered the playoffs as the top seed in Division 3, but got blanked, 27-0, by Marin Catholic in the championship.
Encinal coach Joe Tenorio committed his team to better conditioning after that loss, and he believes it has paid off, with the Jets going 12-1 to this point and winning the Bay Shore Athletic League.

The school known more for its baseball talent — alumni include Willie Stargell, Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis — has suddenly become a mid-sized football power.

The D3 title game — 7 p.m. Friday at Rancho Cotate — will showcase two offenses capable of driving defensive coaches to distraction. Encinal does it with formations. They’ll line up with three backs and double tight ends one series, spread out five wideouts the next, then go to a triple-option set like you might see at the Naval Academy. Jonathan Allen led the Jets with 1,207 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, while two other rushers were over 700 yards. The team total was 304.8 yards per game on the ground, with 57 TDs.
“We have a lot of different looks, a lot of different motions,” Tenorio said. “If you haven’t seen it much, it might be hard to adjust to. That’s what we’re hoping, anyway.”

Cardinal Newman does it with pace. The Cardinals almost never huddle, and they can run consecutive plays before a defense even really knows what’s going on. Some teams like to grind out the clock. Newman seems to ignore it entirely, frequently using 2 minutes or less to drive most of the field.

“They don’t have a lot of great athletes, but they’re extremely efficient, and they play fast,” Tenorio said. “Their technique is almost flawless. (Cronin) does a really good job.”
Encinal assistant head coach and defensive line coach Barry Ford has a simple strategy for success.
“We’ll stick to the game plan again,” he said. “We want to punch Cardinal Newman in the mouth, and see what they come up with. I’m sure they think the same way. We’ve seen them a couple times in state championship games. That’s a great honor. We feel it’s our turn.”

The Cardinals are certain to rely once again on the darting moves of halfback Stephen Tomasin, who has 638 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in three postseason games. But more and more, Cronin is willing to give quarterback Matt Sullivan latitude to throw downfield. Early in the year, Sullivan’s main tasks were running and pitching to Tomasin. Against Miramonte, though, he completed 10 of 17 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns.
Cardinal Newman began the season 1-2 after losses to powerful Valley Christian of San Jose and Palma of Salinas. It looked like this wasn’t necessarily one of Cronin’s better teams. But the Cardinals have gone 9-1 since then, losing only to Rancho Cotate, which wound up with the No.3 seed in Division 2.

“We worked really hard in the offseason,” Cronin said. “We knew we’d be good, it just depended on how quickly we could be good. We lost a couple games early, and they didn’t quit or pout. They just needed to trust the system. This has really been a fun group. It’s one of my favorite groups of kids during my eight years at Cardinal Newman.”
The question is whether Newman has done enough to get another shot at state. Since the NorCal section commissioners started selecting teams for state bowls in 2006, no three-loss team has gone. But there is no clearly dominant team in Division 3 this year, especially if Encinal were to lose Friday night. How much slack will the commissioners cut the Cardinals for losing to top-flight opponents?

That’s not Cronin’s concern, at least not yet.
“We don’t really talk about that with our team,” he said. “We don’t even understand what the system is. We’ve been lucky go to state a couple times, and that’s great that we got picked. But we’ve got one week left of football that we can guarantee we’ll be playing.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or