Notre Dame Survives Bizarre Finish To Take CIF

For three quarters and the better part of the fourth, Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks did everything right in building a 20-3 lead against top-seeded Mira Costa of Manhattan Beach. For the final three minutes, the Knights tried to give the game away. But when Tyler Pringle's 41-yard field goal attempt with two seconds left sailed wide left, Notre Dame had won the CIF-Southern Section Div. III title in one of the wildest, most unbelievably zany, stupefying finishes anyone will ever see.

The excitement started with 3:10 remaining when Rocky Ciasuli blocked a Notre Dame punt, giving Mira Costa possession of the ball at the Knight 40 and a glimmer of hope at pulling off a miracle comeback. Two plays later, Peter Dobush found Devin Adair open in the middle of the field from 25 yards out. With 2:56 left, the Mustangs had sliced the lead to 20-10.

An onside kick attempt followed, but the ball nestled easily in the hands of senior quarterback Marcel Marquez. The game should have been over right there, only a Notre Dame back fumbled on the next play and Mira Costa linebacker Kasey Sitchler recovered. From midfield, the Mustangs ran off nine plays in less than two minutes, survived one fourth down play and got into the end zone again with 1:09 left when Dobush found Haley from seven yards out.

Down 20-17 and with no timeouts left, the Mustangs had no choice but to try another onside kick. This time, the bouncing ball ricocheted off of a Notre Dame player and Ciasuli recovered for Costa. The Mustangs, with 58 seconds left, immediately connected on a 25-yard pass play that took the ball to the Notre Dame 31-yard line. Two incomplete passes and a seven-yard run by Michael Okwo had Mira Costa facing a fourth and three with the clock running and less than 30 seconds remaining. Haley was open and the pass was there. But Anthony Piedra Willis got a fingertip on it at the last second and Notre Dame had held. Only a kneel down remained and Notre Dame would celebrate its first title since 1994.

But, as if the ending get even more bizarre, Marquez fumbled the snap, his fifth fumble on the night, and Sitchler recovered.

" The ball was really wet," said Notre Dame head coach Kevin Rooney. "We fumbled 3-4 snaps before the game even started."

Mira Costa had another chance to complete the miracle comeback. With 13 seconds left, Dobush launched a pass from the Notre Dame 25 that found its way over two defenders and to Adair in the back of the end zone. Slightly underthrown, the tight end got a hand on it but couldn't haul it in.

"I came down with it in my hands," he explained. "I had three guys land on top of me and it just popped out. I did all I could to try to secure it, but it wouldn't stay in there. I've dreamed about catching a game-winning CIF pass in the finals since I was a little kid. I was inches away from it, you know?"

Still, with seven seconds left, the Mustangs had a shot to force overtime. Tyler Pringle, Mira Costa's long-distance kicker, lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt. If good, it would have been his first-ever field goal. The snap and hold were true, but Pringle's plant foot slipped. The kick was long enough, but wide left.

With two ticks left, this time, Notre Dame successfully executed the kneel down and the title was theirs.

"There's no way I can express how I feel right now," said Marquez. "This is the happiest feeling of my life. But the end? My God! Scariest moments ever. I didn't know what to think. I just wanted to win so bad."

Marquez was the hero for the Knights, who completed their first unbeaten year ever. The signal caller rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 207 more yards and another score as Notre Dame executed its offense perfectly in taking a 20-3 advantage into the half. Six times in the first half, the Notre Dame offense faced a third and long situation. Five times the Knights converted, to the tune of 150 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown pass to Nate Cordray in which he broke four Mira Costa tackles.

"We worked all week on wrapping up and tacking and covering your man," said Adair. "You just have to look at those as fluke plays. Hats off to Notre Dame, but if we'd have wrapped up, the score might have been 17-7 us."

Okwo capped a brilliant career with 138 yards rushing for the Mustangs (13-1), but his fumble inside the Notre Dame 10-yard line stopped a drive to open the third quarter when a score would have put all the momentum on Costa's side.

"We knew with that first possession of the third quarter that we needed to make a statement," said Mustang coach Don Morrow. "I thought we did; we just didn't quite finish it off. We had our shot."

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