ENCINO -- An hour after the football game between Encino Crespi and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Celts coach Jon Mack was asked to sum up his team’s performance.
“I still haven’t recovered,” Mack said.
The Crespi players gave their coach and their fans several heart-stopping moments in their 28-26 win over Notre Dame in the Serra League opener for both teams Friday night.
Crespi scored touchdowns on a kickoff return and a blocked field-goal attempt. Notre Dame returned two interceptions for touchdowns and scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter.
In the end though, Crespi came up with three huge plays on special teams and escaped with a narrow victory over its Serra League and San Fernando Valley rival.
“Special teams helped keep us alive in the first half,” Mack said. “We found a way in the end.”
Crespi’s Nate Walker returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and gave the Celts an early 7-0 lead.
But Notre Dame battled back scoring two touchdowns in the last four minutes of the second quarter. Sam Robinson caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Kelly Hilinski to tie the score, 7-7, with 3:58 to play in the first half.
Kevin Carrasco gave Notre Dame a 10-point lead when he intercepted a pass from Crespi quarterback Cody Cordell and returned in 30 yards for a touchdown with 1:16 left in the first half.
Notre Dame kicker Lucas Alfonso added a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter. He was setting up for his second field-goal attempt of the half, a 51-yarder, when Crespi’s Noah Ciccel broke through the Notre Dame line and blocked the kick. He picked up the loose ball and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half.
It was a 10-point turnaround. Instead of going into the half with a 20-7 lead, Notre Dame saw its lead shrink to 17-14.
Crespi running back Terry Williams gave the Celts a 21-14 lead early in the third quarter on a touchdown set up by a blocked punt.
Matt Jacques broke through to block Dylan Pritchard’s punt and Massai Ephriam recovered the football on the Notre Dame 5-yard line. Three plays later, Williams scored on a one-yard run.
Notre Dame coach Kevin Rooney had no explanation for his special teams' woes.
“For some reason, it just fell apart,” Rooney said. “We’ve been doing a great job in every aspect of our kicking game.”
Despite its miscues on special teams, Notre Dame regained the lead early in the fourth quarter. Nick Holland picked off Cordell and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Holland’s touchdown gave Notre Dame a 24-21 lead with 11:02 to play.
On the ensuing drive, Crespi drove 80 yards on 11 plays to take the lead for good on a five-yard touchdown catch by Chris Harper.
Harper finished with four catches for 53 yards. His touchdown gave Crespi a 28-24 lead with 7:05 left.
Notre Dame finished the game with a 23-play drive that stalled on the Crespi 11-yard line. Facing fourth-and-2, Hilinski tried to find Robinson in the end zone, but his pass fell incomplete with 45 seconds to go.
Crespi ended the game by taking a sack in the end zone for a safety. There were two seconds left on the clock after the safety, giving Notre Dame one last chance to return a free kick.
The game ended after a lateral pass and a desperation pitch by Notre Dame at midfield. It was the second heart-breaking loss in a row for Notre Dame. The Knights lost to Chaminade, 36-32, on a last-minute touchdown last week.
“We expect to win,” Rooney said. “Coming close doesn’t do us any good.”