By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With a former quarterback as head coach and an aggressive no-huddle attack, it’s no wonder Cardinal Newman’s offense gets most of the attention year after year.
But the Cardinals’ 44-7 victory over Sonoma Valley in a North Coast Section Division 3 first-round playoff game Friday night showed that the Newman defense is a disruptive force in its own right.
“Our defense really all year long has done a very good job,” said coach Paul Cronin, who played quarterback at Piner and Santa Rosa JC back in the day. “I think our defensive coordinator Matt Di Meola does an excellent job. The assistants on defense are so prideful about putting a good product on the field, and our guys buy into them.”
With seniors like linebacker Phil (Scooby) Wright, defensive lineman Hunter Sikes and safety Zack Reyes leading the way, the third-seeded Cardinals smothered the No. 14 Dragons at Ed Lloyd Field.
Sonoma had just 24 total yards at halftime, by which time Cardinal Newman had built an impenetrable 34-0 lead.
It would increase to 44-0 by early in the fourth quarter as officials went to a running game clock. The Dragons finally scored with 5:10 remaining in the game, against Newman’s backup defenders. Sonoma Valley wound up with 131 total yards, but minus-4 passing if you count three sacks for negative-26 yards against the total.
Cardinal Newman advances to play the winner of Saturday’s game between No. 6 Novato and No. 11 Encinal.
The Cardinals scored touchdowns on their first four possessions Friday, the first a 2-yard run by backup quarterback Zak Faber (who plays in short-yardage situations), followed by three scoring passes by starting QB Keaton Dunsford — to Jacob Webb, Wright (who doubles as a running back) and Matt Derner.
The Sonoma defense finally held late in the second quarter when defensive back Dan Deely — also the Dragons’ quarterback — intercepted a pass from Dunsford deep in his own territory. But Cardinal Newman upped its lead with 40 seconds left in the half on another TD pass from Dunsford to Wright.
Dunsford finished with 19 completions in 28 attempts for 303 yards, resting on the sidelines for most of the second half. Cronin leaned heavily on his junior quarterback with starting halfback Kenny Carter still nursing a knee injury.
The Cardinals added a 20-yard field goal by Trent Klein in the third quarter, and a 41-yard touchdown reception by Ryan O’Leary on a pass from Faber early in the fourth.
Deely ran for 92 yards on 10 carries for the Dragons, most of it after halftime, but completed just 4 of 10 passes for 22 yards. He was under constant siege in the pocket.
While the Newman defense was stout across the board, Wright stands out as a source of mayhem. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker seems to hit twice as hard as anyone else on the field, whether standing up a ball carrier or leveling someone with a block. He sat out last week’s victory over Casa Grande with a concussion, but made his presence felt against Sonoma.
“He’s the hardest-working guy we have,” Reyes said of Wright. “He’s a great leader. He pumps everyone up and leads by example. He just does it all.”
Reyes provided a pretty good example of his own. He broke a bone in his thumb in a victory last week, and came to the field Friday with a cast on his hand. It didn’t stop him from making a leaping interception, or catching five passes for 47 yards on offense.
Sonoma Valley is still looking for its first playoff win since 2007.
This wasn’t the way Sonoma coach Mick O’Meara or defensive coordinator Mike Mulas wanted to go out after 29 years leading the Dragons, but they knew their team was a big underdog.
Cronin remembers reading about O’Meara’s Sonoma Valley teams in the Press Democrat when he was a kid.
“I’m just proud that we got a chance to play them,” Cronin said. “I know it’s the last game; I’m saddened by it. But that’s the story of this thing, how they gave their lives to high school kids.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.