ATHERTON — Bellarmine College Prep waited months for this moment, returning to the scene of its last game, a loss at Menlo-Atherton in the semifinals of the section playoffs.
The season opener Friday night did not disappoint as Austin Ajiake rushed for three touchdowns — two in the fourth quarter — to lead the Bells to a 21-16 victory over an opponent that went on to win a Central Coast Section championship last year.
“We have been training for this game since January,” said Ajiake, who finished with 177 yards in 29 carries. “We circled this on our calendar, ever since they knocked us out last year. This is a big game for us. It all came down to heart.”
Menlo-Atherton stretched a three-point halftime lead to 16-7 early in the third quarter when Joey Olsheausen scored on a 10-yard fumble recovery after Troy Franklin lost the ball on a 47-yard reception.
The good fortunate seemed as if it would be enough for Menlo-Atherton to prevail. But Bellarmine hung around and then made a stirring comeback, which started when Noah Laine hauled in a 30-yard pass from Harry Mingrone, a play that energized the sideline.
Ajiake followed with a 22-yard run to the 15 and then scored on a 15-yard run to cut the deficit to 16-14 with 7:48 left.
“Our chance to win the game was to try to get some momentum with our running game,” Bellarmine coach Mike Janda said. “We were able to do that. Our guys ran hard. We blocked hard and crisp. Fortunately, we made one more plan than they did, and that’s how the game ended up.”
Anthony Magri intercepted a pass near midfield on Menlo-Atherton’s next possession, returning it to the 28. On third down from the 23, Aijake ran for 8 yards. On fourth down from the 6, the senior ran for 5.
Aijake scored two plays later from the 1, giving Bellarmine its only lead of the game, 21-16.
The drama didn’t end there.
One fourth-and-10 from his team’s own 26, Miles Conrad completed a 29-yard pass to Franklin with still 1:09 on the clock. Conrad then connected with Nate Anderson over the middle for 30 yards to the 15.
“I was nervous,” Aijake said. “I was definitely nervous. I was scared, to be honest. But we’re tough. We’re a hard-fighting team. We’re a lot tougher than last year.”
Menlo-Atherton got as close as the 5. But on fourth down, Conrad’s pass to Franklin in the corner of the end zone fell incomplete with two-tenths of a second left, sending Bellarmine’s players into a celebration normally reserved for league rivalry and playoff games.
The game started with immediately fireworks.
Anderson returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, giving Menlo-Atherton a 7-0 lead.
“We’re thinking bad thoughts, there is no question,” Janda said. “But our guys did a great job of responding and getting a touchdown back. That was huge.”
Aijake answered with a 45-yard scoring run to even the score 7-7 just 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
Spencer Corona’s 43-yard field goal reclaimed the lead for Menlo-Atherton, an advantage the Bears held until the final minutes.
Ultimately, Menlo-Atherton made too many penalties in the second half to protect the advantage.
“I am not going to sit here and dispute some of those calls,” M-A coach Adhir Ravipati said. “We were not disciplined.”
It was an emotional 24 hours for Ravipati’s team.
Starting safety D’arius Gipson was hit by a car on Thursday, though the coach said he is going to be OK, he could not play Friday. Another starting safety, Samson Motuliki, injured his knee while running with his teammates through the cheerleaders’ banner onto the field.
Three other players went down in the first half.
“We were pretty short-handed there,” Ravipati said. “But give them credit. They deserve to win the game.”
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