On a crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon perfect for football, Bellarmine Prep’s victory had the plot line of a horror movie: Every time it looked like the Lions had reason to breathe easy at Mount Tahoma Stadium, the antagonists stalking them reappeared with malicious intent.
Bellarmine (10-1) survived its first-round state playoff game over Bothell (6-5), holding on for a 35-30 victory. The Lions held leads of 28-17 at the half and 35-17 in the fourth quarter only to have the Cougars rally and almost recover a deftly executed onside kick with 2:24 remaining.
“Any time you play those guys, you know they’re going to go all out until the last second,” said Lions coach Tom Larsen, whose team beat Bothell two years ago in a similarly suspenseful first-round game.
“Coach (Tom) Bainter has a quality program. I’m proud of the way our kids were able to hang on when there were some huge momentum swings.”
The first momentum swing came on the opening kickoff, which Bellarmine junior Drew Griffin caught on a bounce and returned for an 85-yard touchdown. Driving to the Bothell 11-yard line on their ensuing possession, the Lions were within grasp of a second score when senior quarterback Sefo Liufau zipped a pass to Griffin in the end zone.
But the ball bounced off Griffin’s shoulder pads and into the hands of defensive back Kizhan Proctor. By averting a two-touchdown deficit, the Cougars established a pattern: They would not go away.
Thanks to explosive Bothell running back Danny Wilson, whose 2-yard touchdown followed a 48-yard burst, the Cougars tied the score at 7, then took a 14-7 lead when quarterback Ross Bowers hooked up with uncovered wide receiver Jared Berry.
Bellarmine regained its momentum on a Lou Millie touchdown run that found him shredding Proctor’s open-field tackle.
Moments later, Liufau’s 2-yard keeper gave the Lions a 21-14 advantage that was padded by another touchdown just before halftime (a nice scoop catch in the end zone by receiver Calvin Chandler) and what seemed to be a game-clinching TD in the fourth quarter, culminating the Lions’ most impressive drive of the game.
As Millie, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior whose ability to plow into defenders belies his size, churned out a succession of quality carries – 12 yards here, 10 yards there – Bellarmine converted two fourth-and-2 situations. Still another fourth-and-2, at the Bothell 29, set up a nifty play-action fake to Millie. Because the Cougars took the bait, tight end Logan Hickman was wide open for the touchdown reception that extended the lead to 35-17.
Although it was a Liufau pass that increased the Lions’ lead, the University of Colorado-bound quarterback acknowledged Millie as catalyst of the drive.
“Lou is our workhorse,” Liufau said. “For 10-plus weeks now, he’s been a great running back.”
All that separated Bellarmine from a berth in the quarterfinals was a defensive stop or two and a continued reliance on Millie to ground down the clock. The Cougars had other ideas.
A 57-yard touchdown pass from Bowers to Berry – a defensive backfield mix-up left Berry alone in the right flat – caused some consternation, and when Wilson scored on a 26-yard screen pass, things got tense.
“Not everything goes your way all the time,” Liufau said. “But that’s the case in a lot of football games. You’ve got to play with it.”
Between the busted defensive pass coverages and some fourth-quarter penalties best attributed to overzealousness, the Lions victory wasn’t flawless. But it was a victory, and it sets up a quarterfinal game against Gonzaga Prep next weekend in Spokane.
“I’m excited already,” Griffin said. “It’s gonna be fun.”firstname.lastname@example.org