By CHRISTOPHER LAWLOR
PEORIA, Ariz. – Championship teams are built on defense. Apparently so are teams that play in the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series.
In one of the more dominant defensive efforts of the season, Eastside Catholic (Sammamish, WA), rang up a huge win for the Pacific Northwest on Saturday night with an ESPNU national television audience on hand.
The Crusaders, who earlier this month won Washington’s Class 3A state championship, shut out nationally ranked Centennial (Peoria, AZ), 17-0, in the second half of the GEICO Bowl Series.
EC scored all their points in the first half and leaned on their defense from the opening kickoff.
In the first game, undefeated St. Frances Academy (Baltimore, MD) toppled Lee County (Leesburg, GA), 43-14. The common thread in both victories was a dominant defense that became stronger as the games wore on.
The opening 24 minutes set the tone when EC limited Centennial to one first down and 24 total yards.
EC’s two-headed quarterback rotation of Hayden Harris and Michael Franklin were effective and kept the normally taut Coyotes off balance. Franklin had a solid outing, hitting on 9 of 17 passes for 138 yards.
Gee Scott Jr. was the main target for both signal callers, gathered four receptions for 138 yards.
Blake Hall’s first quarter field goal made it 3-0 and wound up being the game-winning points. Sam Adams II buoyed EC’s ground game with 88 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Adams gave EC a 10-0 lead with 11:47 left in the second quarter, taking a pitchout and sprinting 5 yards. Adams’ TD capped a 13-play, 80-yard march that consumed nearly four minutes.
EC closed out the scoring with 2:50 left in the first half when Harris found the end zone on 4-yard keeper to close out another methodical drive.
Ironically, Centennial entered Saturday’s game with a perfect 14-0 mark and having gone 27-1 over the last two seasons with two Arizona 5A state championships. The Coyotes knocked off previously undefeated Notre Dame Prep (Scottsdale), 60-7, in the 5A final on Dec. 1. That game showed Centennial’s dominance as they unleashed a punishing running attack with three runners over 50 rushing yards and the offense scored the game’s first 53 points.
Saturday night was a different script as Eastside Catholic , who beat regular season opponents from Idaho and Oregon, posted their first shutout of the campaign. The Crusaders outscored opponents, 442-132. In the previous 13 games, EC had a few close calls with the tightest game an 18-point win over archrivals O’Dea (Seattle, WA) on Oct. 6. But the Crusaders, who lost opening day to nationally ranked Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, CA) 35-12 in August, were in charge the rest of the way and claimed the program’s third state title this decade and first since 2015.
EC previously played in the GEICO Bowl Series in 2014, losing to Trinity Christian Academy (Jacksonville, FL), 35-21. A repeat of that performance never surfaced this tine.
The defense buried Centennial’s vaunted running attack that rushed for 3,703 yards did not feature a 1,000-yard runner but had five went for more than 400 yards. The Coyotes’ O-line paved the way with three seniors as its anchor.
Yet the Coyotes’ running game was grounded to a mere 52 yards and had set a season record for rushing yards.
EC was stingy and could sense a shutout was in the works. Once the Coyotes matriculated the ball in the Red Zone (or inside the 20-yard line), they were scoreless in four visits.
Here’s a telling statistic that Centennial never dreamt of: zero for 14 on third down. No wonder the Crusaders were so suffocating.
In particular, defensive end Jaylahn “JT” Tuimolau. It became a game of “Where’s JT?” If Tuimolau lined up over Air Force-bound center Carson Keitner, the blocking assignment failed. Tuimolau shot through the A and B gaps at will. When the 6 feet 5, 285-pound sat on the edge, he had a clear shot at Centennial backfield.
Tuimolau, who is a five-star recruit from the Class of 2021, has interest from big-time programs such as Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, USC, Penn State and Stanford, to name a few. Tuimolau is a strong candidate for the top-rated player from class.
Against Centennial, a team with a stellar reputation for keeping its quarterback upright, Tuimolau recorded five sacks and added several tackles for loss and QB hurries. The one-man pass rush disrupted Centennial’s game plan.
About the only bright spot for Centennial was a blocked field goal early in the second half. But that was it and Crusaders were rewarded for a stellar effort and will carry home the hardware to their suburban Seattle campus.
EC, who returns a bulk of their skill position players and the indomitable Tuimolau on the D-line, will surely be a preseason nationally ranked team next fall. They are a strong candidate for a third appearance in the GEICO Bowl Series, too.