By Ray Hamill — If there was a little bit of an unknown quantity to the Crusaders at the outset of the 2018 season, just two weeks in there’s a very familiar look to them again.
On Saturday, St, Bernard’s rolled over McKinleyville 41-7, making it two straight blowouts to start the campaign, with several new faces quickly establishing themselves as the next wave of Crusaders stars.
Once again they set the tone early along both lines and quickly took control of the game, ending it as a competitive spectacle long before the final buzzer.
“I’m just happy that with so many new starters this year these guys are stepping up,” St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin said.
For McKinleyville, it was the second straight loss to kick off the season, although the Panthers played a cleaner game this time around and were just simply outmatched by a deeper and more talented team.
“They say the biggest growth for any team is what you do from week one to week two, and that’s definitely the case for us,” Panthers head coach Keoki Burbank said. “Nobody wants to lose the way we lost, but there are a lot of positives we can take from this.”
For the second straight week, the St. Bernard’s offensive line dominated and paved the way for the Crusaders to drive the ball effectively, allowing them score touchdowns on their opening four possessions and six of their first seven.
“I’ve been very impressed with the way they’re playing,” Tomlin said of his line. “These guys play well as a unit.”
Alongside senior center and team MVP Connor Chase, tackles A.J. Jager and Cole Petrusha and guards Lucindo Gable and Harmon Daniel have all impressed.
The Crusaders opened the scoring less than three minutes in, marching 60 yards on eight plays and finding the end zone on an 18-yard TD toss from quarterback Will Omey to Justin Hagler.
Hagler also had a 22-yard reception on a second-and-25 to help keep the drive alive.
Tomlin said this week the Crusaders had been working on their passing game and they came out firing, with Omey completing 7-of-9 attempts on the team’s opening three drives.
The home team wasted little time stretching the lead on their second possession, when Omey took the first snap and broke free down the sideline for a 48-yard scoring run.
He added a second scoring pass on the team’s ensuing drive, this time to Lane Thrap on a 22-yard reception.
Junior back Talimaivao Fonoti had another productive day running the ball, finding the end zone twice from inside the 10 in the second quarter as the Crusaders stretched their lead to 34-0 by halftime.
The one first-half drive they didn’t score on was halted by a Caleb Martinez interception at the St. Bernard’s 30, a third-down play that was set up by back-to-back tackles for a loss by Mack lineman Nate Ballew.
Ballew was a definite bright spot for the visitors, finishing with two sacks and coming close to a couple more.
Linebacker Kyler Carr also impressed for Mack, while both Martinez and Kameron Conlin ran the ball well at times and were able to sustain some drives in the second half, something the Panthers had problems with in week one.
“We cut down on turnovers,” Burbank said. “We still had too many penalties though, but I thought we improved a lot.”
The running back duo offer the Panthers a change-up of styles that works well together.
“Conlin did a really nice job of being that jab guy, setting it up with the quick jabs,” Burbank said of the senior, who also had some big hits at linebacker. “And then Caleb comes in with the haymaker. They feed off of each other well.”
The Crusaders had some haymakers of their own, including Omey, who rounded out their scoring with a second rushing TD in the third quarter, this time from nine yards out.
Defensively, the Crusaders had a strong performance, holding the Panthers scoreless until the third quarter, answering their coach’s call.
“I really challenged our defensive line and our linebackers to play better this week,” Tomlin said. “And I feel like we took strides forward today.”
Luke Fairfield had a huge day at receiver for St. Bernard’s even though he didn’t find the end zone, pulling in several big receptions to keep the chains moving.
On the defensive side of the ball for St. Bernard’s, Fonoti had an interception, while Cayden Gordon had a fumble recovery..
The Panthers got on the board late in the third quarter, driving 55 yards on five plays, including three consecutive first-down runs from Conlin and Martinez to set up a 10-yard TD pass from junior quarterback Jack Patton to junior receiver Che Jimenez.
The latter part of the game was plagued by too many penalty calls, something that seems to be a recurring theme in local games this season, and not all of that can be put down to early-season rustiness by the players.
Next up for the Crusaders is a trip to the Redwood Bowl to play Arcata on Friday night, while the Panthers will have a bye before traveling to play Elsie Allen in two weeks.
“We’re definitely going to work on cleaning up our penalties, and ironing out some of the little mistakes,” Burbank said.