SAN FRANCISCO — When Chico High football coach Jason Alvistur and his team ended a 30-year Northern Section title drought on Nov. 27, Alvistur was brought to tears of joy. The Panthers had reached the Northern Section Division II Championship for three straight years but had lost each time.
When Alvistur found out the Panthers would get the opportunity to play at Kezar Stadium in the CIF Division 4-A NorCal Regional Championship, the coach said he was “elated.” Players said they had to treat it like it was another night of football and savor the moment at the end.
Win or lose, the opportunity for the Chico High football team to play on the original field of the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night was something the Panthers’ players, coaches and its fans will never forget.
On a chilly evening on a field that held plenty of history back to 1946, Chico High came up short in its bid for the CIF Division 4-A NorCal Regional Championship and a state title berth against Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory on Saturday night. The Fighting Irish defeated the Panthers 31-7 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
Chico High entered as the underdog with Calpreps.com predicting Sacred Heart to advance 21-19 in its projections released Nov. 26.
After Saturday’s loss, Alvistur praised players for never giving up and always having a next man up mentality throughout the season even when injuries arose. He said this year’s team went on a roller coaster throughout the year and there were times players could have quit, but they instead believed in themselves and their coaches. Halfway through the season Alvistur’s team had to reinvent their identity and refused to give up.
Alvistur complimented the team’s toughness and grit to keep getting better. He said the captains Sam Ruffino and Gage James created a special bond amongst players, which senior Tad Hervey praised his team for following Alvistur’s message.
Alvistur called James and Ruffino the best captains he has ever had, stating the two lead by example, they’re supportive and encouraging in the way they talk with their team and the love they show is huge for the underclassmen.
After Alvistur spoke, the captains stood up and had messages for their team.
Ruffino challenged the freshmen, sophomores and juniors to make it further than he did. Ruffino was told his sophomore year Chico High would never be good again following a 2019 section title loss and that inspired him to be a leader on this year’s team.
“We made it further than all the others (this season),” Ruffino said. “We know somebody is going to make it further than us and is going to change the culture even more.”
For the quarterback James he reminded his teammates how time flies by and to savor the memories.
“I want them to know they got to put their nose down and work hard because if they don’t it’s going to blow by them and their season is going to end even sooner every time,” James said.
Chico High got the ball to open the first half and drove 16 yards before being stopped on third down.
Later, the Sacred Heart offense took a shot deep down field that was deflected away on the Fighting Irish’s first play of the game. Ruffino then sacked SHCP quarterback Ray-John Spears on second down, but Spears then ran to his left for 20 yards and a first down.
The Fighting Irish pushed the ball down the field to the Chico High 18-yard line, and on third down and 14 yards, Sacred Heart wide receiver RL Miller ran a fade route to the back left corner of the end zone and the Spears found him for an 18-yard touchdown to give SHCP a 7-0 lead with 3 minutes and 35 minutes left in the first quarter.
— Justin Couchot (@JCouchot_Sports) December 5, 2021
The Chico High offense used its rushing attack and got its way to the Sacred Heart 11-yard line halfway through the second quarter. A false start moved Chico back to the 16-yard line on fourth down. Chico High kicker Cesar Moreno lined up for a 33-yard field goal, but his kick missed wide left.
Sacred Heart capitalized on the missed field goal and its offense scored twice before halftime.
With 1:23 left Spears threw a 20-yard pass to Aidan Shea for a score, and with 12.6 seconds left in the second quarter Bruce Uperesa returned a Moreno punt 95 yards for a touchdown to give SHCP a 21-0 lead entering halftime.
Sacred Heart received the ball to open the second half, but Chico High’s defense continued fighting as it has all year.
After SHCP drove the ball 55 yards to the Chico High 25-yard line, Chico High’s Hervey intercepted a pass in the end zone and the ball was brought out to the Chico High 20-yard line but the Panthers’ offense was unable to get anything going.
After a punt, Spears threw his fourth touchdown of the game to — an 18-yard pass to Jerry Mixon Jr. to increase the Sacred Heart lead to 28-0 with 4:20 to play in the third quarter.
Thirty seconds into the fourth quarter Sacred Heart increased its lead to 31-0 on a 36-yard field goal.
Chico High did not give up until the final whistle.
With 2:38 left, James threw a 25-yard pass across the middle to wide receiver Kyron Smith for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown of the season for the senior Smith.
For James and Smith it was a special way to cap of the two seniors’ high school football career as the two have played a multitude of sports together throughout their childhood.
Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep (7-7) will now host Northview (9-6) from Covina at 6 p.m. Dec. 11 in San Francisco.
“It sucks to lose your last game, but I guess for the programs’ sake I hope we can learn from this,” Alvistur said. “This is our first 4-A game in the state playoffs and it was a great experience but I got underclassmen that watched Sacred Heart get that plaque and hopefully that stings a little bit and they want it more. I think we know what it takes to get here and I think now that we’ve lost we know what its going to take to win a game like this.”