Oscar Mauia leaves Simi Valley defenders in the dust on his 63-yard touchdown in the final minute of Thursday's win. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk Photo)

It took three straight wins to finish off the regular season, including a thrilling win over Simi Valley on Thursday, but Bishop Diego football is playoff-bound.

After battling to a 27-20 victory over the Pioneers on Thursday at La Playa Stadium, the Cardinals clinched a third-place finish in the Marmonte League and an automatic spot in the CIF-SS Playoffs.

Bishop Diego, who started the season 1-6, will learn its playoff division and opponent on Sunday morning.

“We’re really counting on a lot of young guys to step up and play and they have grown as we’ve gone through some of the adversity that we’ve had,” Cardinals coach Tom Crawford said of his team that has just one senior.

“We didn’t have a good start to the season, we were very inconsistent and couldn’t seem to play healthy two games in a row… They’ve gelled at the right time.”

Similar to the season, Bishop Diego’s night did not get off to a great start on Thursday. 

After fumbling the opening kickoff and having a punt blocked on their first drive of the night, the Cardinals found themselves in a 7-0 hole following a Simi Valley rushing touchdown just three minutes into the game.

“It had the potential to go sideways, yet these kids kept pushing and working,” Crawford said. “They still stuck with it and played play-by-play, and that’s all we can ask.”

On the ensuing drive, Bishop Diego found a groove on offense, running 12 straight run plays to get the ball down to the Simi Valley 5-yard line.

With the Pioneer defense keyed in on the run, Cardinals quarterback Tua Rojas rolled out and found Dominic Herrera in the back of the endzone to tie the game at 7-7 with under two minutes left in the first.

“For us, being able to control the clock and limit possessions in a game is our game plan,” Crawford said of his run-heavy offense. “Long drives are what the coaches really enjoy seeing.”

Following a missed field goal by Simi Valley, Bishop Diego regained possession at its own 20-yard line.

However, two plays later, Rojas was sacked and the ball was jarred loose. The Pioneers picked it up, setting up the offense deep in Cardinals territory.

The Simi Valley offense wasted no time, as Jesse Sereno hit Dominic Demaio for a 5-yard touchdown pass. A missed extra-point attempt made the score 13-7 with 8:32 left in the second quarter.

With Bishop Diego seemingly focused on pounding the run, the Pioneer defense loaded the box on the ensuing drive. Rojas made them pay, hitting Nick Malesky for a 31-yard completion to move into Simi Valley territory.

“Tua is gaining more confidence at quarterback and I think he is athletic enough and has an accurate enough arm to make teams pay if they’re not going to respect that he has the ability to throw the ball,” Crawford said.

After a penalty left the Cardinals in a 3rd and 16, Rojas dumped a pass down to Isaiah Kitt on a screen play. Kitt took the ball and maneuvered through defenders all the way for a 23-yard touchdown.

A successful extra point gave Bishop Diego a 14-13 advantage with less than two minutes left in the half. That lead held until halftime.

Simi Valley came out of the locker room on fire, rattling off four straight plays of double-digit yards before capping off the quick drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Brice Hawkins.

Following the scoring drive, the Pioneers led 20-14 with 10:27 left in the third.

Both offenses then traded turnovers on downs after the respective defenses got stops on 4th and 2, sending the game into the fourth quarter.

Gabe Villa hauls in the game-tying touchdown pass from Tua Rojas. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk Photo)

The Cardinals’ offense then marched down the field, getting down to the 1-yard line of Simi Valley. From there, Bishop Diego ran back-to-back run plays that were stuffed for no gain.

They then turned to the air, where Rojas found Gabe Villa wide open in the flat for the 1-yard touchdown. The extra point was good, giving the Cardinals a one-point lead at 21-20 with 6:31 to go.

When all was said and done, Rojas completed 6-of-10 passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns.

The Pioneer offense then took the field and began marching down the field, including a completion of 15 yards and a rush of 25 yards.

Knocking at the door with the ball on the Bishop Diego 19-yard line, Simi Valley dropped back to pass and Kitt flew in from his linebacker position for a sack that sent the Pioneers back 10 yards.

On the very next play, with 2:59 left in the game, Kitt made another huge play. This one was in the secondary, as the junior jumped in front of a pass and came away with the interception.

“I don’t know if there are too many players in the Marmonte League that have played as many downs as we ask Isaiah to play,” Crawford said. “For him to still have enough in the tank at the end to make those plays is a testament to his desire to win.”

Isaiah Kitt leaps in front of the pass to secure the crucial interception late in the fourth quarter. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk Photo)

The massive pick gave the Bishop Diego offense a chance to run out the clock. However, Oscar Mauia didn’t think that was enough.

With about a minute left, Mauia broke off a 63-yard touchdown run to put his team up 27-20 and send the Cardinals fans into a frenzy at La Playa Stadium.

Mauia finished the night with 175 rushing yards on 17 carries, leading a potent rushing attack that featured four different runners, including Gabe Villa, who took 13 rushes for 60 yards.

“Coach Robles does a very good job with the running backs,” Crawford said. “They run very, very hard and they trust the offensive line. [The run game] is something that we take a lot of pride in.”

After the extra-point attempt was blocked, the Pioneers had 47 seconds to drive 76 yards for a touchdown. 

They were unable to do so, sending Bishop Diego into the playoffs.

“They believe in each other and they work hard,” Crawford said of his team. “They’re seeing improvement themselves, and with that improvement, they’re starting to believe that they can compete even though they’re very young.”

Bishop Diego will face off against an unknown opponent in Round 1 of the CIF Playoffs next Friday.

“We’re trending the right way and they’re going to continue to grow,” Crawford said. “To get another week with them is great, there was nobody that wanted to stop.

“We’re seeing that potential start to show itself.”