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The Bad Taste Is Gone PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 15 November 2012 05:55

Taste Is Gone After Missing The Playoffs The Last Two Years, Notre Dame's Playoff Win Against Oaks Christian Was A Signal That The Program Is Regaining Its Stride

MIKE TERRY/SFVS

Oh What A Relief It Is - Notre Dame seniors Nick Monica and J.J. Muno were all smiles after the Knights returned to Southern Section postseason football after a two-year absence, defeating Oaks Christian in the first round of the Pac-5 Division playoffs.

On last Friday, Nov.9, when Sherman Oaks Notre Dame kicked off to Westlake Village Oaks Christian in the first round of the Pac-5 Division playoffs, the game ended a dry spell of two seasons since Notre Dame last appeared in the Southern Section football postseason.

For the Knights' players, students and fans, it felt like eons. The only gaps on the Notre Dame football resume should be between the teeth of linemen who forgot to wear a mouth guard while blocking. The tradition of successful football teams runs deep; since 1948, the Knights have won or shared 16 league championships, appeared in seven finals, and won four (Division III) championships, the last one in 2004.

They were also state Division II champions in 2004 But Notre Dame had missed the playoffs the past two seasons, going 1-3 in league in both 2010 and 2011. Their overall record was 8-12 for those two seasons. The last playoff win was a 41-20 victory over Fountain Valley on Nov. 20, 2009; they lost in the quarterfinals to Mission Viejo the following week. They also lost in the quarterfinals in 2008, and haven't advanced past that since 2005, when they reached the finals, losing to Compton Dominquez.

So even though lull – cyclical, natural or otherwise – that occurred in 2010 and 2011 was, by most standards, relatively brief, the pressure the 8-3 Knights were feeling was real, not imagined.

"It definitely was a mission of the senior class to get Notre Dame back in the playoffs, and back on the map," said linebacker J.J. Muno, one of those 25 seniors listed on the Knights' team roster.

"We definitely learned from the last two years, but we didn't enjoy it at all. It definitely fired us up to work harder in the offseason to get better. The last two years have been painful for us as players, and for the whole Notre Dame community."

Fellow senior Nick Monica, who plays tight end and defensive end, echoed those sentiments. "A lot of people lost confidence in us," he said. "It's one of those things where we have to earn back our respect; we're still doing that.

"When I came in here as a freshman (in 2009), the team made the playoffs, and it was still a real good team – a lot of people went on to Division I (college football). They lost to Mission Viejo, and it was kind of downhill for a couple of years. So I think people lost confidence in us."

Coach Kevin Rooney, now in his 33rd season at Notre Dame, does not play freshmen on the varsity team. Who knows how tempted he was to do so during this two-year playoff lapse, although, if he was, he did not give into those urges. He does, however, relay a sense of urgency about not having the non-playoff skid grow to three years.

"It was definitely important," he said about the Oaks Christian game. "You coach high school kids to get better at the sport, but there are a lot of other reasons. We're all very competitive people and we want to do well; but it's not the end of the world if we don't. Because we take lessons away, one way or the other.

"So from a coach's standpoint – and we've been together here a long time – we have a great group of seniors that have kind of suffered through the past couple of years of not making the playoffs. For them it was a big deal; and certainly for us, too. It just feels like the way it should be, when it didn't before."

Of course playoff wins don't get more thrilling – or anxious – than the Knights' 28-27 victory against Oaks Christian in the first round of the Southern Section Pac-5 Division playoffs. By the way, that's Division I, not Division III or II. It's a playoff bracket that stretches from Ventura County to Orange County, and is one of the toughest playoff tests in the state.

Monica, 17, remembered how different everything felt leading up to, and then playing the game. He had reminded himself that this was the first playoff game this group of Knights would participate in.

"In the beginning it was very nerve-wracking," he said. "It was definitely a different atmosphere, exciting; it was a lot more people. And it was more of a quiet confidence that we had. Usually coming into games we're real intense, real loud, trying to get pumped up. This was a little different." Muno, 18, remembered "how crowded it was" at the team's home field with fans from both sides filling the stands and dozens more onlookers prowling the sidelines. "Just to be in the playoffs…it was a really cool experience," he said.

The Knights trailed the visiting Lions 7-0 at halftime, and Monica knew it could have been worse. "The game itself was a lot more fast-paced than in the regular season. We kinda had to see what they were doing – and that first series they ran it right down our throats and got a quick score," he said "Our defense bounced back and kept us in it that first half; it could have been 21-0 (instead of 7-0). But halftime, some of the senior leaders got together and said 'we're right there.' We didn't yell, we didn't get all crazy; we just told everybody 'we're right there.' And we came out in the second half, and did what we needed to do."

Notre Dame held a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter only to see the Lions rally with two late touchdowns. But with a chance to tie the game, Oaks Christian kicker Wyatt Nelson missed the extra point and the Knights hung on.

Muno was quite relieved. "It would have been really disappointing for me and the senior class (to lose the game)," he said "We thought we should win that game, and we're glad we did."

Monica felt a different surge of emotion "I was on the field when (Lions quarterback Brandon Dawkins) threw that touchdown pass; I was playing defensive end. I knew as soon as he threw it, it was gonna be a touchdown," he said. "So I went off to the sideline as the field goal block team went out. To be honest, I was thinking 'we got this in overtime, gotta carry some momentum over.' But when (Nelson) shanked it, I was like 'wow.'

"It felt like destiny." The Knights' reward for winning, if you want to call it that, is to face Bellflower St. John Bosco in the quarterfinals. The 7-4 Braves are Trinity League champions and were seeded third in the Pac-5 Division.

They should be undefeated, but had to forfeit four games for using an ineligible player. Even if St. John Bosco wins out, they could be left out of the state bowl consideration, even with a regional game added this year. So the Braves are highly motivated to win three more games, in case that is as far as they can go in 2012.

"They are an exceptionally talented team," Rooney said of Bosco. "They've got some remarkably good defensive linemen and offensive linemen. They've got really good skill position guys – good running backs, the quarterback's good, the receivers are good. Their whole team is really good – as good a team as I've seen in a long time…I hope we can keep it close to the fourth quarter and see what happens."

This has already happened for Notre Dame – a return to playoff football, of battling for a championship. The next step is to go beyond the quarterfinals for the first time in 2006. But you can't win that game unless you're playing in that game.

"It feels great to be among the top eight teams left in the Pac- 5 Conference, and to be playing again two weeks into the playoff season," Rooney said. "Obviously we'd like to keep going. It certainly feels better than it did the other way."

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Last Updated on Thursday, 15 November 2012 07:28