Marcus Chan
Bishop Diego running back Marcus Chan slips out of a tackle attempt by a St. Bonaventure defender. Chan scored the winning touchdown for the Cardinals. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

Well, here it was a Friday night in late March (yes, March) and, remarkably, it was finally time for some high school football.

I don’t often mention my own perspective when reporting on a game but I have to admit I had given up on using my CIF press pass to see any live football in Santa Barbara this year.

Rushing to La Playa Stadium to watch Bishop Diego play St. Bonaventure, I half expected to see the press box covered in cob webs or that yellow caution tape police use to mark a crime scene. And, make no mistake, what has happened to high school athletes this year was definitely a crime – the attempted murder of the joy of competition by a malevolent shadow known as the COVID-19 virus.

But Bishop Diego High’s football players and staff never gave up hope, and Friday night they showed why they worked so hard to keep their heads in the game: The Cardinals have a very good football team, or at least the makings of one.

Bishop demonstrated that in a 13-7 win over Camino League rival St. Bonaventure that featured a lightning strike by Buddy Melgoza, a bulldozing 3-yard touchdown run by Marcus Chan to take the lead in the final minutes, and a smothering second-half defense that yielded only two first downs. 

In a normal season, this would have been a highly anticipated game between two of the state’s top Catholic school powerhouses, a likely harbinger of the potential for a league championship or a long run in the playoffs.

This, of course, is not a normal season and there will be no championships to play for in a makeshift spring season in which Bishop will play five games. But that hardly means the game was not highly anticipated. Both teams had waited seven frustrating months just to get a chance to play, so in that sense just walking on the field in their game uniforms was a victory, a triumph of resilience and a drive to compete that can’t really be measured in touchdowns or yards gained.

Johnny Alvarado

Johnny Alvarado of Bishop Diego hauls in a pass before a St. Bonaventure defender arrives. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

This is a football story, though, so let’s start with the most dramatic play, Melgoza’s long interception return to break a 0-0 tie in the first half. On third-and-4 from the Bishop 7, St, Bonaventure’s sophomore quarterback Manny Rosales dropped back looking to toss a short pass to this left. But Melgoza read the play like a first-grade primer, jumped the route and raced the other way untouched until he got to the 5, where he finished off the run with a stiff arm. The PAT kick attempt was botched.

“I’m going to have to ask Buddy later if that’s the farthest he’s ever run,” joked Bishop coach Tom Crawford.

Both teams had trouble running their offenses at peak efficiency, which was understandable considering the wild ride of shutdowns and limited practice sessions due to COVID-19 restrictions. Neither team filled up the stat sheets, as they say, as Bishop totaled just 162 yards in offense while St. Bonaventure had 189. The Seraphs probably had the game’s best drive in the first quarter when Rosales and running back Justin Cantu kept taking small bites until St. Bonaventure found itself with a fourth down at the Bishop 1 to start the second quarter. A “wildcat” formation direct snap to Ben Harrold failed to fool the Cardinals, however, and he was swallowed by a host of tacklers for no gain.

Bishop actually followed with its “longest” drive of the game, running 10 plays and completing some long passes that were wiped out by penalties. When it was over, the Cardinals had “marched” all the way from the 1 to the 17.

The Seraphs finally did break through late in the half, when Harrold caught a 25-yard pass from Rosales to get the ball to the 9, and Rosales finished it off with a 7-yard run. Leilani Armenta kicked the PAT to make it 7-6.

Bishop’s winning score, ironically, was triggered by another Melgoza interception, this time one that he threw on a long third down attempt. When St. Bonaventure took over at its own 15 and went three-and-out, Bishop had the ball at the Seraphs’ 41 with three minutes to play.

Mixing runs by Chan and Anthony Villa, (the biggest being an 11-yard burst by Villa) Bishop took the ball to the 3. Chan finished it off and Michael Luckhurst hit the PAT for a 13-7 lead with 1:22 to play. St. Bonaventure got one first down after that, but Rosales was sacked and stripped by Bishop’s stout and relentless 300-pound lineman Logo Va’a as time ran out.

“We didn’t have a lot of possessions,” said Crawford. “We have some young guys and this is like spring (training) football for them. To go through such an extended period where you don’t know if you will even play … no 7-on-7 (summer training). But to go through such an extended period where you don’t even know if you will ever play, and then to play a very competitive game, that was a very good thing.”

Melgoza finished with 60 yards passing while Chan led the rushing with 33 and Villa added 28.

Rosales finished 16-for-23 for 107 yards while Cantu had 65 yards on 21 carries for St. Bonaventure.

Dan Shiells has been covering high school football in Santa Barbara for more than 40 years.