Cats top Crusaders in dramatic semifinal to move on; Ferndale to face St. Vincent at HSU for NCS title

Mark Lourenzo/Beacon Correspondent

The Ferndale Wildcats overcame great odds last Saturday afternoon and emerged victorious over the St. Bernards Crusaders in a dramatic finish to the North Coast Section's Division 5 semifinal game at Coach Carlson Field in Ferndale. In a miraculous finish, the Cats scored 14 points in the 4th quarter, including the game winner with just :12 seconds on the clock and celebrated their 20-13 win over the feisty Crusaders. The win springboards the No. 1 seeded Wildcats to the NCS championship game, to be played this Saturday, kickoff time slated for 1 p.m., at Humboldt State University's Redwood Bowl. The opponent will be No. 3 seed, the St Vincent de Paul Mustangs who needed their own dramatics to advance to the divisions title game. The Mustangs scored a 4th quarter touchdown against No. 2 seed California School for the Deaf and a successful PAT kick decided the game with a final score of 13-12.

Last Saturday, after a rather calm morning, the weather turned ugly just a half hour before kickoff for the semifinal battle between the Ferndale Wildcats and the St. Bernards Crusaders. The first half became a futile pursuit of offensive movement on a slick field, the defenses owned the muddy real estate and both teams struggled to hold on to the football. Despite the field being in great shape prior to the game, neither team could get untracked and both Ferndale and St. Bernards had just two first downs apiece to show for their efforts after two quarters of play. Ferndale had five punts and St. Bernards had four in the first half, all kicks were successfully executed and it became a game of field position as both teams looked for that big break.

Neither team had advanced into the other teams end of the field until St Bernard punter Rolo Olivares uncorked a 54 yard kick, pinning Ferndale back on their own one yard line. Ferndale failed to gain a first down and with their backs to the wall, Wildcat punter Dakota Ward got off a excellent boot out from the back of his own end zone. The Crusaders started out with the ball at the Wildcat 47 yard line, with less than two minutes to play in the half, it was the first time either offense found itself across midfield. The Crusaders earned just their 2nd first down of the game and advanced to the Wildcat 35 yard line looking for a score. Quarterback Christian Mello dropped back to pass but was hit by blitzing Ferndale linebacker Briceland Franklin as he threw and Ike Townsend hauled in the errant pass for a Wildcat interception.

It was the first turnover and the first significant play of the game, the Cats took note and advanced the ball into Crusader territory after a pass interference penalty. However, the Wildcats ran out of clock and the teams went to the half-time locker room in a scoreless tie. Both teams came out for the 2nd half determined to make something happen and with the rain subsiding, the opportunity was there for a big play. St. Bernards drew first blood as the opening kickoff was returned by speedster Sierra Domingo 54 yards to the Ferndale 28 yard line. Crusader fullback Logan Bongio rush got the team closer, then quarterback Christian Mello hit receiver Shed Bean in the corner of the endzone for a 15 yard touchdown. Bean kicked the PAT through and St. Bernards led 7-0.

Ferndale in turn was determined to answer with a solid possession, but instead found themselves punting once again on 4th down. A low snap and a slick football landed at punter Dakota Ward's feet and the elusive football instead was scooped up by Crusader Sierra Domingo and it was a short 10 yard run to the Wildcat endzone. Just like that, St. Bernards struck again and despite the missed PAT kick, the Crusaders led 13-0 at the 6:53 mark of the 3rd period. With positive yardage and first downs at a premium, it was safe to say, Ferndale was in trouble at that point.

With just 25 yards of offense to show for the Ferndale efforts so far and St. Bernards stacking against the run, the Cats turned to the passing game. Ferndale quarterback Kyle Chambers hooked up with wide receiver Wyatt Standley for a 28 yard gain into St. Bernard's territory. Then two plays later came a critical, game changing play. Chambers lofted a pass intended for wideout Jacoby Hughes, but with two Crusader defenders in great position, it looked as though at best it would be an incomplete pass. Instead, the ball skipped off the Crusaders outstretched hands and landed in Hughes grasp. Positioned behind the defenders, Hughes hauled in the ball and raced the remaining 20 yards to a Wildcat touchdown.

Jacoby Hughes would make another big play just three downs later when a Crusader fumble was pounced on by the Ferndale senior, giving the ball right back to the Cats. Ferndale followed with their longest possession of the game to that point. Wyatt Standley gained 19 yards on a reverse and the Cats were poised to strike again. Strike again they did, or so they thought as Kyle Chambers hit Justin Lang with a pass right along the home sideline at the Crusader 5 yard line. Lang hauled in the pass but was hit just at that as he did so and it was ruled that he was out of bounds on the play. A big turn of events, as the Crusaders made a 4th down stop that thwarted the drive. One play later was the end of the 3rd quarter and it was do or die for the Wildcats.

Forcing St. Bernards into a quick three and out with a punt, the Cats were back in business with control of the football. Marching 77 yards in 10 plays, the Cats were assisted by two 15 yard penalties committed by the Crusaders. Ferndale in turn had to overcome a penalty, a fumble and a near interception themselves, but overcome they did. Justin Lang ripped off runs of 8, 16 and 12 yards in the drive, the last dozen reaching the Crusader end zone for a touchdown. Ferndale was all the way back into the game however, a failed two point conversion run left them with a one point deficit instead of a one point lead. With just 4:23 to play in the game, it was going to take more heroics.

Once again the Wildcat defense did their part and the Crusaders were forced to punt on 4th down. Dealing with a low snap, St. Bernard's punter Olivares bent down to field the ball and his knee touched the ground as he gathered the football. Instead of booming the ball down the field, the Crusaders turned the ball over to the Wildcats just 15 yards from pay dirt. On two successive running plays the Cats moved closer to the end zone, but also the slippery ball twice came loose. Twice Wildcat center Kelly O'Day recovered for Ferndale saving his teams chances for the win. A first and goal at the one yard line made a Ferndale score certain but time was running out and fullback Ike Townsend's dive was met by the St. Bernard's defense.

No call from the officials came and the Cats lined up to try again with no time outs available. Ferndale quarterback Kyle Chambers dove left alongside center O'Day and both sides of the field awaited what seemed an eternity for the call. Touchdown Wildcats with just 0:12.1 left in the game. A Justin Lang run for two points was the punctuation and Ferndale led for the first time in the game, 20-13. St. Bernards had no time to work with and fumbled away their slim chances, Wildcat lineman Trevor Earley recovering, game over! It was a remarkable turn of events that had stolen away certain victory for St. Bernards and handed the win to Ferndale.

"St. Bernards played well, there were a lot of elements for us to overcome today," said a rain-soaked and shivering Ferndale head coach Kim Jorgensen after the game. Ferndale quarterback Kyle Chambers was sure he got in the end zone on that final one yard dive, but had to wait out confirmation from the officials. "It was scary, I didn't know what they were going to call, but of course I thought I was in," Chambers said on the win or lose decision. Senior running back Justin Lang best described the epic battle between the two rivals, "we were both fighting for every single yard out there, the field was a great equalizer today." It was the 26th straight win by the Wildcats over the Crusaders and certainly one of their most dramatic victories.

Ferndale's opponent for the championship game will be no pushover. The No. 3 St Vincent de Paul Mustangs beat St. Bernards 34-21 in the season opener back in August and are riding a 7 game win streak. The Mustangs avenged one of their two losses during the regular season when they nipped the California School for the Deaf last weekend in their semifinal game by a score of 13-12. The Mustangs put the ball in the capable hands of senior quarterback Mitch Sheppard, who has thrown for over two thousand yards this season. In fact, St Vincent has gained more yards through the air than on the ground and have 26 passing touchdowns to go with their 28 rushing scores. The field surface at HSU will certainly speed up the game and the Wildcats are hoping it will work to their advantage.

photo captions:

Photos by Mark Lourenzo/Beacon

1. Ferndale quarterback Kyle Chambers (No. 2, bottom) and more importantly the football lie across the goal line and into the endzone, as several of his Wildcat teammates signal touchdown and the St Bernards defenders look for the signal from the referee. The call was Ferndale touchdown with 12.1 seconds left in the game and it proved to be the game winner for the Wildcats in Saturday's NCS semifinal game at Coach Carlson Field in Ferndale.

2. The Ferndale Wildcat defense closes in on St Bernards quarterback Christian Mello (No. 2) in the North Coast Section Division 5 semifinal game played at times in a driving rain last Saturday in Ferndale.