SAN MATEO — It was hard to tell that Serra had won Saturday afternoon, that the San Mateo powerhouse had beaten one of Northern California’s top programs in an anticipated high school football showdown that would help set the tone for the season among the elite teams.
Serra scored three touchdowns in an opening quarter that left Folsom wobbling.
The Padres hit their guests from the Sacramento region with a trick-play touchdown on the game’s first snap and punished the Bulldogs with jarring hits — some late, according to the officials — that threatened to turn the matchup into a rout.
But Folsom steadied itself, at least defensively, and Serra had to hold on for a 21-14 victory that ended with the Padres taking a knee after recovering an onside kick and converting a game-clinching first down in the final minutes.
“We need to be a tougher organization,” Serra coach Patrick Walsh said. “We just weren’t tough enough. We just weren’t organized enough to do exactly what we wanted to do. But Folsom has a lot to do with that. Folsom is being Folsom. What are they doing to lay down for us?
“I just think we need to get a little bit tougher, particularly on the offensive side of the ball mentally and physically — mostly mentally.”
Serra was mentally sharp on the first play of the season.
In Walsh’s two-plus decades coaching football at Tom Brady’s alma mater, he has never been shy about showing innovation and trickery.
He and his staff had a play dialed up Saturday after receiving the opening kickoff.
From the Serra 20, Maealiuaki Smith took the snap from the shotgun formation and threw a backward pass to Nano Latu on the left side.
The junior stopped after making the catch and unleashed a deep pass with his left arm down the field.
Serra’s Nano Latu throws a touchdown pass to Charlie Willey on the team’s first play from scrimmage this season, Saturday, August 26, 2023, against Folsom in San Mateo, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Wide receiver Charlie Willey reeled it in and did not stop until he crossed the goal line.
Twelve seconds into the new season, Serra had a 7-0 lead.
“It’s good to have a good trick play like that,” Smith said. “It gives us a lot of momentum. It gets us amped up and gets the jitters out. It was a good way to start the game.”
Emotionally charged after the perfectly executed touchdown play, Serra sent out a defense that was ready to be physical against another team after an off-season of preparation.
The Padres hit hard, sending an early message that they wanted to protect their No. 1 ranking in Northern California.
Another huge play put Serra up 14-0.
This time, Smith connected with tight end Cole Harrison down the field for a 60-yard touchdown with 7:10 left in the first period.
Serra tight end Cole Harrison catches a touchdown pass in the 1st quarter against Folsom, Saturday, August 26, 2023, in San Mateo, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Serra continued to frustrate the Folsom offense on the next series, the three-and-out giving the Padres the ball at their own 28.
In its only sustained drive that ended with points, Serra marched 72 yards in 11 plays, a possession that Danny Niu finished with a 6-yard run across the goal line.
With 1:02 left in the first quarter, Serra had a 21-0 lead.
The scoreboard did not change until Folsom reached the end zone twice in the final 6:11.
Defensive end Taniela Folau led Serra’s defense with 3 1/2 sacks and a fumble recovery.
Folsom finally scored when sophomore quarterback Ryder Lyons connected with Daymion Rivera over the middle from 30 yards to pull the visitors to within 21-7.
Lyons’ 13-yard run with 2:30 left made it a one-score difference and left Serra not looking nearly as energized as it was in the first quarter.
Serra head coach Patrick Walsh pleads with an official during the season opener against Folsom, Saturday, August 26, 2023, in San Mateo, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Walsh said that’s OK.
“A sour taste in the mouth with a win is an acceptable business as long as we’re mature about it,” Walsh said. “I think it’s very, very hard to play from the top. It’s easy to be Rocky Balboa. Nobody believes in us. Apollo Creed gets all the pub. Has all the machinery. It’s easy to be Rocky Balboa.
“Right now, we’re not. I kind of sensed a little of that, kind of entitlement. We’re up 21. We’re good. It doesn’t work that way.”
No matter how Serra feels, it still left the field No. 1 in NorCal, a perch it held in 2021 and indisputably maintained last season after beating both Folsom and De La Salle in the first two games.
Serra will try to complete the back-to-back victories again next Saturday when it plays host to De La Salle.
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For Folsom, it wanted no part of being OK with a seven-point loss to NorCal’s top team.
“You’re proud of the effort,” Folsom coach Paul Doherty said. “I think the game was probably not as close as it ended. They kind of took it to us. Good football team and they beat us. But we try to be really proud about the fact that there are no moral victories. We expect our kids to play great.
“This is the brand of football they want to play. They want to be the best team in Northern California and want a chance at some of these teams in the South. These guys are running the table year in and year out. So we’ve got to play them. I am glad they keep us on the schedule. We’ll be back in Folsom next year.”
Yup, Serra-Folsom III will happen in 2024, if not in a regional later this season.
Serra’s football team lets out a cheer before the start of their first game of the season against Folsom, Saturday, August 26, 2023, in San Mateo, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Serra quarterback Maealiuaki Smith passes against Folsom during the Padres’ season opener, Saturday, August 26, 2023, in San Mateo, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Serra tight end Cole Harrison beats Folsom’s Daymion Rivera to the end zone on a 1st quarter touchdown reception, Saturday, August 26, 2023, in San Mateo, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)