The varsity football team began their Central Coast Section Division III playoff run with a 37-20 victory over The King’s Academy on Saturday, Nov. 12th at home on Cartan Field. The team will go on to face Live Oak High School in an away semifinal game this Friday.
Despite the decisive victory, the Menlo Knights did not enter the quarterfinals in their best state. The previous weekend, Menlo fell to rival Sacred Heart Prep in a crushing 34-7 defeat. However, they did not allow the loss to change their outlook on the week ahead. “This week we flipped the switch,” offensive coordinator Mike Hill said. “We put Prep behind us, and we just focused on playoffs and beating King’s Academy.”
During the week, the Knights also struggled with players affected by illness. The absent players included crucial starters; senior Robby Enright, senior Aidan Zhou and sophomore Jamie Forese were all forced out of the contest. “A big part of this week was ‘next man up’, making sure that we played for others and that included guys that were out,” Head Coach Todd Smith said.
With fewer starters, the coaches made significant adjustments to the lineup. “Knowing that Robby was sick, I had to move to strong safety,” senior Charlie King said. “I wanted to make sure that he actually gets a last game, so to fill in for him, I had to play a good game.” King typically plays cornerback, but assumed the role of starting strong safety in Enright’s absence.
Another key substitution was filling in the vacancy left by starting center Zhou with senior Ari Krane. Krane assumed his normal role of middle linebacker and then center, which he had never played before. Sophomore Kyle Mahaffey was moved from left to right guard, which was also a new position for him. “Having two people play positions they’ve never played before was interesting,” senior Avery Romain, a lineman for the Knights, said. “We drilled it a lot in practice to make sure we got our snaps and blocking down.”
Alongside new absences, the Knights welcomed back junior Willis Johnson to the backfield. The running back missed several weeks due to injury.
Additionally, several sophomores and freshmen made their first appearances on the varsity field. Many former JV players were called up after their season ended last week with an undefeated 10-0 record. “I was pretty nervous but the varsity team really supported and encouraged all of us. We had some big plays from the sophomores,” sophomore Ryan Jabal said. Jabal had a touchdown saving tackle on special teams during his first game on the varsity team.
In the first quarter of the game, The King’s Academy struck first against Menlo, with an 81-yard passing touchdown from Reid Black to Lukas Morris. “We didn’t start the game exceptionally well by giving up a big play defensively which let them right into the game,” Smith said. However, a silver lining came from the drive as the Menlo Knights’ special teams caused a botched Point After Touchdown to limit the score to 6-0 for TKA.
When Menlo took possession of the ball, the team knew they needed to respond. Under pressure in his own territory, senior quarterback Jake Bianchi connected with King on a 31-yard pass. Slightly behind midfield, Bianchi made a 36-yard pass to King again, who brought the ball into the redzone. Senior Ty Richardson finished the drive with a 17-yard touchdown run and senior Ross Muchnick made the PAT to take the lead. Muchnick also made a 30-yard field goal in the first quarter to make the score 10-6 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, The King’s Academy stole the lead back from Menlo with a 10 yard touchdown pass from Black to Ethan Price.
Determined to enter halftime with a lead, Menlo responded with another touchdown. Reading the field under pressure, Bianchi scrambled for a 27 yard gain, putting his offense in scoring position. He then found Jung, who scored a 13 yard touchdown. Another successful kick by Muchnick put Menlo ahead 17-13.
With under a minute left on the clock, The King’s Academy marched into Menlo territory, attempting to reclaim control of the one-score game. However, their efforts were stopped by Menlo’s defense and the clock, leaving Menlo in front by four points heading into the half. “We knew that it was closer than it should be,” senior Max Kinder said. “We came out of halftime strong because we were frustrated.”
Towards the end of the third quarter, Menlo’s special teams unit successfully pinned the ball deep in King’s Academy territory. “All across the board, we were good on special teams,” Muchnick said. “We had kickoffs in the endzone and didn’t let them return them.”
Menlo’s defense held TKA on the edge of their own endzone, forcing them to punt on fourth down. A special teams punt block by freshman Palmer Riley led to a recovery by Jung in the endzone. Jung’s second touchdown of the game was capped off with another PAT by Muchnick. “The blocked punt for the touchdown was certainly a game changer,” Smith said. “I think it was pretty neat that we were able to score on special teams.”
Another quick stop by the Menlo defense held The King’s Academy scoreless for the entire duration of the third quarter. Menlo’s offense took the field with confidence, and with just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Bianchi found King again for a 38 yard score. Once again, Muchnick nailed the extra point to bring the score differential to 31-13.
In the fourth quarter, Menlo added a defensive touchdown. Jung found the endzone for the third time, completing his hat trick with a defensive interception on the five yard line, which he ran in for a score. “Going hard on offense and defense but at the same time working on special teams at practice allowed us to really execute in the game,” Jung said.
With under five minutes left in the game, The King’s Academy scored their third touchdown, a pass from Toby Trotter to Morris. However, the seven points added were not enough to catch up to Menlo’s 37. In an unsuccessful attempt on their final drive to score another touchdown, Trotter was intercepted by Krane. Krane’s first career interception called game. “Ending off the game with a pick by one of the most unselfish guys on the team was really memorable for me,” Romain said.
The game ended with a final score of 37-20 Menlo. Winning the CCS Division III quarterfinal game has set the Knights up for a semifinal contest at Live Oak High School, Smith’s alma mater, this Friday. “We’ve got to watch film and keep the same mentality this week at practice,” Hill said. “It’s us versus everybody and we just have to focus on us and do what we have to do as a team no matter who we are playing against.”
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