Of all the highlights over the last 30+ years of Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish football, from the undefeated 1997 Team to the CCS Champions of 2008 and the CCS Finalists of 2011, from the epic victories over archrival Saint Ignatius in 1982 and1987 on their home field, the historic wins over Bellarmine and a Tom Brady-led Serra team, the achievements of this year’s edition truly have eclipsed them all: California State 4A Football Champions. Let that sink in for a minute, Irish fans.

It was impossible to have predicted this, not after a tortuous 0-5 start characterized by well-played games through three quarters, only to be defeated in the 4th quarter. Still, Head Coach Barry McLaughlin and the entire coaching staff (Antoine Evans, Mike Hill, Fidel Pugh, Kelvin Sanders ’13, Demario Carter, Dennis Shanahan ’98, George Stefko ’16, John Hammonds, Colin Peuse) continued preaching the same message from day one, “Play to your capabilities. Eliminate the dumb stuff.” It would be easy for players to write off the season at that point, to let down and stop pushing. They kept listening, though, they kept working hard in practice and they stayed focused, together, as a team. Coach Mac said it was the Valley Christian game, a 27-21 loss to a very good team, that was the first spark. This was the game where the team started to see what they could be capable of. They went into the next week of practice focused and ready to work. Again: “Play to your capabilities.” A spark had been lit, but it only smoldered for the time being.

The first reward for their resilience came against ancient rival Saint Ignatius. Flipping the script from earlier in the season, the Irish had their own 4th quarter comeback in a thrilling 21-20 win in the Bruce-Mahoney game, and now, for the first time, they could taste what victory felt like. The next step forward in their journey was a trip to San Jose where they played an almost flawless game and beat Bellarmine 20-13 handily. After that step forward against the Bells, the Irish regressed the next week versus Riordan, as the Crusaders dealt a massive blow to SHC’s momentum in a 48-21 loss. This one game could have fractured the Irish, extinguishing that fuse lit versus Valley, but the team was already ignited and kept pressing forward. “Play to our capabilities,” the mantra continued.

Sacred Heart Cathedral finished the regular season 3-4 in the WCAL and 3-7 overall. Since then, the team tallied 4 straight wins, including a 27-3 win over Christopher High School in the Central Coast Section Division III title game and then a dominant 31-7 performance over Chico High School in the 4A NorCal Championship. Historic, yet not enough for the Irish. Remarkably, the team entered the state title game finally even on the season, 7-7 and poised to capture the school’s first football state title.

The state final against Northview of Covina would not be as easy as their previous matchups, as the challengers from Southern California responded again and again against the Irish with huge plays and a massive amount of heart. Ultimately, though, the Irish prevailed 48-29, sealing it with a Jerry Mixon ’23 pick six late in the fourth quarter. The amazing performances of Ray-John Spears ’22, Bruce Uperssa ’22, and RL Miller ’23 will long be highlighted in SHC football history, but it took an entire squad of determined players, covering kickoffs and punts, blocking in the trenches, and converting the extra points that all had an equal part in this victory. An epic goal line stand that forced a field goal was also decisive, and epitomized the collective will of the squad. Football is a game of multiple contributions from many, and Saturday night at Kezar Stadium was no different as the Irish made school history.

For all Irish football fans, for all the former players and families, coaches and crews, those who won championships and those that didn’t win a game, for the many who never had a football field of their own, this is a celebration for all of you, for your heart, your struggle and your blood, sweat and tears. Together, we finally won it all and, as much as we value the game effort and the honor displayed, we play the game to win. The Irish won, EARNED a state championship no less, something never to be taken away, and we all share in the victory and remember the hard path traveled to get here. Go Irish, and Go Irish FOREVER!

Watch the Game on Demand
To watch the Fightin’ Irish State Championship win on demand, visit the NFHS Networkto access the archived video.

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