By Ray Hamill — The Crusaders followed their most frustrating performance of the season with their most inspirational, and in the process they took a huge step toward a potential first Big 4 championship.
On Saturday afternoon, St. Bernard’s kicked off conference play with a 22-14 win over Fortuna at Crusader Field in a game that lived up the billing as the most anticipated of the season.
Both teams played hard and it went down to the final couple of minutes, but ultimately the difference was the fact the St. Bernard’s players played a much better first half than their opponents, on both sides of the ball.
That performance may have served as a wake-up call.
“We had a team meeting on Monday morning and had a serious talk,” said head coach Matt Tomlin, who added “We had to play more mature and smart football, and that’s not just the players but the coaches also.
“The message all week was to play physical and smart. We had to be the most physical team and the smartest team.”
The players and coaches responded and the tone for this performance was set several days ago.
“It was by far the best week of practice we’ve had,” Tomlin said. “I’m just very proud of my players and assistant coaches.”
The Crusaders started the game with Wyatt Simoni at quarterback in their “heavy formation” and it worked almost immediately with Simoni taking the third snap of the game 67 yards for the opening score.
The standout senior, who has been sensational at running back and defensive end all season, split time at quarterback for the remainder of the game with freshman Trenten Hagler and sophomore Luke Brunton, as the coaches wanted to control the situations they have the young QBs playing in.
While the Fortuna offense struggled to find much rhythm in the opening half, the SB offense had some success moving the ball, piecing together a long drive on their their third possession that ended in a missed field goal.
Check out two of the St. Bernard’s touchdowns above …
They would add to their lead, however, on their next drive, when receiver Aaiden Burris caught a 21-yard TD reception from Hagler in the end zone.
Two missed PATs left the Crusaders ahead 12-0 at the break.
The second half was a different story, as the Huskies grew into the game and scored a pair of TDs on long Jake Houseworth runs in a back-and-forth third quarter.
After kicker Tyler Hinrichs added to the St. Bernard’s lead with a 31-yard field goal, the Huskies offense went to work.
Houseworth’s first score came on a 66-yard run midway through the third quarter and the junior standout would add a two-point-conversion run to make the score 15-8.
The two teams combined for a pair of touchdowns in the final minute of the quarter, the first coming on a six-yard Simoni run, capping a seven-play drive that featured seven Simoni carries.
Just 44 seconds later Houseworth found the end zone a second time, this time from 42 yards out, a score that was set up by an inspirational fourth-down run by quarterback Chad Mussey, who returned to the lineup after missing the past three games through injury,
That, however, was the last of the scoring.
The Fortuna defense would force a punt on the Crusaders’ ensuing possession and the Huskies then marched deep into SB territory on a long time-consuming drive.
But the SB defense had the final say, holding the visitors on a goal-to-go situation and turning the ball over on downs with three minutes remaining.
Interior defensive linemen Jonathan Cortez, Lane Ford and Kyler Smith were all outstanding once again for the home team.
“Those three guys are the heart and soul of our team,” said Tomlin, who added “Our defense stepped up today and made some nice plays, and we tackled so much better today.”
Tomlin also had words of praise for the Huskies after a matchup of arguably the two best coaching staffs in the H-DNL.
“I want to say how much respect I have for (head coach) Mike Benbow and his football program,” the St. Bernard’s head coach said. “Everything about Fortuna football is top notch.
“That team has a chance to win a Division-6 NCS championship.”
Check out one of Jake Houseworth’s TD runs and a fourth-down conversion by Chad Mussey to set up the score above …
And one player in particular caught Tomlin’s eye.
“Jake Houseworth is one of the best football players I’ve ever coached against,” he said. “I’m an opposing coach, but I’m a big fan of Jake Houseworth.”
Benbow said his coaches and players will go back to work after the loss.
“It was a great high school football game,” he said. “Unfortunately we lost, but I’ve just got to say every time we play (St. Bernard’s) it’s usually a pretty good football game and this one was.
“I like the fact we responded after halftime. In a big game like that you’ve got to come ready to play and we were a little flat in the first half. But I was really happy with our second-half play.
“Ultimately I’m really proud of our kids for playing hard to the end.”
Penalties at crucial times proved costly for the Huskies, including a crucial holding call when they had a first-and-goal just inside the SB 10-yard-line late in the game, as well as being called for having too many players on the field.
“That was a little frustrating,” Benbow admitted.
Some younger players stepped up big for the Crusaders, which was impressive in such a big game.
Three freshmen featured heavily for them, including Hagler, Garrett Shanahan and right guard Josh Tinkham, who just found out on Wednesday that he would be starting after a dental emergency for one of the starters.
“That 14-year-old freshman played outstanding,” Tomlin said of Tinkham.
Simioni had 158 yards rushing and two TDs on 31 carries, while also finishing with seven tackles on defense, including two for a loss.
Burris led the SB receivers with 88 yards and a TD on three receptions, while Hagler completed 5 of 8 passes for 121 yards and the TD and Brunton completed 3 of 6 passes for 21 yards and had an interception.
Lawrence Renner added nine tackles, including one for loss and Smith and Cortez each had eight tackles with Smith also getting a sack.
For Fortuna, Houseworth finished with 142 yards rushing and two TDs on 12 carries, while Caden Wilkinson had 29 yards rushing on eight carries.
Mussey also had 31 yards rushing on nine carries while completing 7 of 15 passes for 57 yards and an interception.
Tegan Rumley led the Fortuna receivers with 19 yards on two catches.
There were only two turnovers for the game, one by each team.
Hagler had an interception for St. Bernard’s and Kallen Barrote had one for Fortuna.
The Crusaders are now 1-0 in league and 6-2 overall, while the Huskies dropped to 0-1 and 5-3.
Both teams have two league games remaining.
Next week, Fortuna plays at Eureka and St. Bernard’s travels to Del Norte.