ATHERTON – Time was running out Saturday on Christopher’s season.
On a muddy field that brought back images of football’s glorious past, their gold numbers barely visible on dirt-stained white jerseys, the visitors from Gilroy trailed Menlo School by 17 points with less than five minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Cougars were about to give the ball back to Menlo, too, facing third-and-17 from their own 21 after the home team accepted a penalty rather than give Christopher a more manageable fourth down.
Jaxen Robinson, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Christopher quarterback, dropped back to pass and threw deep to speedy receiver Amari Bluford, the playmaker who ignited the Cougars’ late rally in the first round of the Central Coast Section Division II playoffs last week against Archbishop Mitty with a 95-yard kickoff return for a TD.
This time, Bluford caught Robinson’s pass for a 79-yard touchdown that set the stage for a stunning comeback that ended with eighth-seeded Christopher winning 21-17 to advance to the championship game next week against second-seeded Soquel.
Fifth-seeded Menlo finished 10-2.
“Down 17-0 and coming back like that, it’s like a Cinderella story for us,” Robinson said. “We worked too hard for this, since January, February in the weight room. It’s just amazing to see all the pieces connecting and going to the championship next week.”
Robinson’s 24-yard pass to Evan Vernon cut the margin to 17-14 with 6:55 to go and then the quarterback showed a few minutes later that he’s more than a pocket passer.
The big guy tucked the ball under his arm and rumbled through the defense and into the clear, his 35-yard run accounting for the touchdown that put Christopher in front 21-17 with 4:52 left.
“I am going to be completely honest, it did not feel real,” Robinson said. “I saw the opening, ran and broke off a couple of tackles.”
Nothing like a little improvisation to extend the season.
“We don’t like him to run because he’s a pocket passer,” coach Darren Yafai said. “But he’s a beast. He’s 6-5 and 220 pounds and a great athlete. He bugs us every day. ‘Coach, turn me loose. Let me run.’ That wasn’t even a call. That was just him.”
Bluford intercepted a tipped pass on Menlo’s next possession.
After Christopher gave the ball back to Menlo, the home team had 63 seconds to turn the bitter taste into a memorable finish.
It wasn’t to be for Menlo.
Mikey McGrath connected with Nicholas Scacco on a crossing route for 16 yards to the Christopher 37. The quarterback hustled to the line and clocked the next snap with 38.8 seconds to go.
Then McGrath scrambled for 7 yards to the 30 and clocked the ball again, leaving Menlo with a fourth-and-3. McGrath tried to keep his team’s hopes alive but his run around left end was stopped a yard short of a first down.
Christopher (11-1) took a knee and started celebrating.
“We weren’t executing to the level I know we can,” McGrath said. “They were the better team in the second half.”
McGrath’s touchdown run from the 2 late in the first quarter capped a 12-play, 77-yard drive that gave Menlo a 7-0 lead.
Andre Gonzalez Lombera’s 28-yard field goal late in the second quarter widened the margin to 10-0 and McGrath’s second touchdown run from the 2 made it 17-0 with 5:44 left in the third quarter.
The touchdown came on a short field as Menlo took over at the Christopher 17 after a muffed punt.
Moments later, it looked as if Menlo was going to stop the visitors again.
But then Robinson connected with Bluford for the long touchdown that lit the comeback flame.
“That’s where it really changed,” Menlo coach Todd Smith said. “We found a way to lose this football game. Very uncharacteristic of us. I am disappointed for the kids. They’ve worked exceptionally hard.”
Robinson finished 20-of-28 passing for 264 yards. Bluford caught 11 passes for 198 yards.
McGrath threw for 243 yards on 14-of-25 passing. Brady Jung had six receptions for 109 yards.
The victory gives Yafai at least one more game. The coach told his players two weeks ago that he plans to step down when the season ends.
Is something magical happening?
Last week, Christopher overcame a nine-point deficit with about five minutes left to upset top-seeded Mitty.
Now, they roared back again to reach the final.
“I don’t know,” Yafai said. “I just think we have great kids and a great staff. And, you know, maybe a little magic. But it’s not for me. It’s these guys. I am just a football coach and a history teacher.”