The longest season began on August 25 with a 9-0 victory over the Desert Pines Jaguars, a Las Vegas football team that would go on to win a Nevada state high school championship. It continued with four consecutive road victories, at Arroyo Grande, Nipomo, St. Joseph in Santa Maria, and Santa Fe Christian in Solana Beach.
Then the Bishop Diego Cardinals rolled through what would become Thomas Fire territory, defeating Carpinteria, Fillmore, Santa Paula, and Ojai’s Nordhoff High by scores of 56-0, 56-0, 65-0, and 52-0. Flying high after nine wins, the Cardinals came back to earth in their regular-season finale, losing to Grace Brethren of Simi Valley in overtime, 31-24.
Realizing that every remaining game could be their last, the Cardinals obliterated the taste of defeat in the CIF playoffs, beginning with a 63-13 romp at Norte Vista. In what would be their only home game of the postseason at La Playa Stadium, they defeated San Marino, 59-21. Then they overpowered Saugus, 45-27, and won their very first Southern Section championship at Golden Valley in Santa Clarita, 37-6.
Bishop Diego next ventured where no Santa Barbara high school had gone before — into the postseason bowl games started by the State CIF in 2006. The purpose was to match the best teams in various divisions from Southern California against the best from Northern California to determine true state champions.
Although they earned the right to play their 3AA Division games at home, the Cardinals had to hit the road again because of the smoke from the Thomas Fire, which broke out the Monday after their win over Golden Valley. The journey down the charred coast to their games in Thousand Oaks brought to mind The Road, a postapocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy that depicts a noxious, ashen landscape lit up by distant flames.
William Rolland Stadium at Cal Lutheran University proved to be a safe and happy place for the Cardinals to play out their historic season. A 41-7 victory over Quartz Hill in the Southern Region bowl game brought them to the State Championship bowl last Saturday night, December 16. They were backed by some 1,000 fans, many of whom had left Santa Barbara after evacuating homes threatened by the fire.
The Shasta Wolves, 3AA champions of the Northern Region, made a long trip from Redding to face Bishop Diego. The visitors dominated the first five minutes of the game. After forcing the Cardinals to go three-and-out on their first possession, Shasta took a 6-0 lead when receiver Kenyon Riley got a step behind the secondary and scored on a 60-yard pass play.
There was no panic on the Bishop sideline. Such assurances as “There’s plenty of football left to be played” were vocalized. The Cardinals made lots of big plays from then on, and they scored a resounding 41-6 victory.
“We knew we could bounce back,” said John Harris, who caught a 25-yard pass for Bishop’s first touchdown and added TD runs of 59 and 19 yards. “It’s pretty surreal. Coming in as a freshman, never did I think we’d win a state championship.”
Harris, a 6′2″, 210-pound senior, completed a phenomenal season in which he rushed for 2,263 yards, averaging 10.9 yards a carry, and scored 35 touchdowns. He hurt his knee in the Grace Brethren game, missed the Norte Vista blowout, and carried only twice against San Marino, yet he came within 21 yards of Santa Barbara County’s career record of 5,146 yards accumulated by Napoleon Kaufman, the Lompoc star who became a Heisman Trophy candidate at Washington and played for the Oakland Raiders.
“He contributed in so many ways,” Bishop coach Tom Crawford said of Harris, who also played defensive end. “Such a strong, fine athlete.”
The Cardinals were a team of many strong parts, playing with a unity of purpose. Shasta running back Detrius Kelsall carried 240 pounds in a 6′3″ frame, and no one man was going to stop him. “We did a marvelous job getting multiple guys to the ballcarrier,” Crawford said. Among the run stoppers were linebackers Evan McKeegan and Ashton Borgeson. Zac Lopez was a force in the middle of the line, while John Lindsey and Will Goodwin defended the edges.
Whenever a big play was needed, somebody stepped up. Shasta tried to get back into the game with a fake-punt play, but Mark Vehslage picked off the pass. Dylan Streett’s interception ended another threat by the Wolves when the score was 21-6.
Cardinal quarterbacks Jake Engel and David Gladish foiled an aggressive Shasta rush with their scrambles. Engel threw TD passes to Harris, McKeegan, and Isaiah Veal. Gladish threw a strike to Streett in the end zone.
Speaking to a Redding TV reporter after the game, the Wolves saluted their conquerors. Coach J.C. Hunsaker called them “a top-notch football program.” Quarterback Ian Garcia said, “You gotta hand it to them; they were the better team; they proved that.”
Wearing state championship caps after completing a 15-1 season (the only loss a tie in regulation), the Cardinals stood alongside a dozen other divisional bowl winners, the best out of more than 2,000 prep teams in California.