High school football: Given rare chance to play Week 1, St. Ignatius makes most of it at Palo Alto

St. Ignatius beats Palo Alto, 28-7, in one of the few top games that wasn't canceled due to wildfire smoke.

High school football: Given rare chance to play Week 1, St. Ignatius makes most of it at Palo Alto

PALO ALTO — St. Ignatius watched as game after game fell victim to wildfire smoke. Quarterback Aidan Smith and his teammates boarded the bus, then had their own bout of uncertainty. They had to disembark and were left waiting for 15 minutes to receive word of their game down the peninsula at Palo Alto.

They got the green light and came out revved up in front of their first full-scale crowd in almost two years, knocking off Paly 28-7, with Smith leading a well-rounded offensive performance.

“We got the go-ahead, and that was all we needed,” said Smith, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 176 yards, including six of his seven attempts on the Wildcats’ scoring drive on their first possession of the game.

Smith’s effort was aided by his two running backs, Ronan Greene and Keith Reyes, who each reached the paydirt and combined for close to 100 yards on the ground.

But the momentum-shifting score came on defense, with just over a minute left in the third quarter.

Palo Alto’s Brody Simison had just intercepted Smith on a deep ball to give the Vikings the ball trailing 14-7, with a chance to score before half and get the ball out of the break. Simison forced three turnovers and caught the lone touchdown pass in the losing effort.

The ball was back in the hands of Palo Alto senior quarterback Danny Peters, who matched Smith with 178 yards on 13-of-27 passing. Peters, big-bodied with a big arm to match, found receivers for four plays of 20 yards or more.

On third and six, Peters rolled right and threw to junior receiver Amani Elfadil, but St. Ignatius’ Oliver Bligh stepped in front of the pass and didn’t turn around until he’d reached the end zone.

“That’s just team football right there,” said Smith, who threw the interception the prior possession. “A guy playing his first year of varsity steps in and makes a pick-six, the energy goes way up and you kind of forget about what you did the last drive.”

Bligh threw the credit right back at his teammates. Especially deserving of the praise was defensive end Luke Leupold, who was a constant presence in the Vikings’ backfield and finished with three sacks.

“The D-line played great, getting him out of the pocket, maybe a little upset,” Bligh said. “Our defense played great. Our linebackers covered. Our safeties were all over the field. Our coverage was really good.”

Even on the losing side, there were reminders of how fortunate these teams were to be on a football field, playing in front of more than select family members. The COVID-19 pandemic limited Bay Area schools to six games last spring, and only immediate household members were allowed to attend.

A number of the area’s top teams had games canceled Friday because of wildfire smoke.

But the gates were open for everyone at Paly on Friday.

Students, dressed in white, filled the bleachers. A section over, there was the marching band.

Peters connected with Simison from 20 yards out to tie the game at 7 midway through the second quarter.

Afterward, the third-year starter rushed toward the home crowd, threw his arms in the air and let out a roar.

“Right at the start before the start of the game, our whole team could just tell,” Peters said. “They were super amped up. The crowd was going crazy. It felt super good.”

An even bigger improvement over last spring was the gameday experience in the school hallways.

Students were also relegated to online learning last spring but returned to the classroom last week.

The whole day, Paly football players carried a ball with them from class to class, which they tossed back and forth. Anyone who dropped it had to drop and do 30 push-ups, Peters said.

“It felt like a stereotypical high school movie scene,” Peters said. “All the guys were high-fiving each other in the hallways. … That energy we didn’t have this past COVID year, that energy now transfers into us on the field.”