APTOS — It wasn’t easy, but the Aptos Mariners are back in the dance.
The No. 2 seed in the Central Coast Section Division-III playoffs bested the visiting No. 6 seed Willow Glen Rams 42-24 Friday night to reach their second CCS final in as many years.
“We’re almost there,” said Aptos quarterback Alex Joh. “The first step of our goal was to get back there, now we just have to finish up.”
The Aptos Mariners (10-2, 5-0), winners of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League championship three years in a row and CCS playoff qualifiers for four consecutive years, will face the No. 5 seed St. Ignatius Wildcats (4-8, 2-5) Friday.
They will play at Wesmont High School in Campbell at 7 p.m.
It is a neutral site between San Francisco and Aptos.
The Wildcats come from the powerhouse West Catholic League, which qualified six teams for the CCS playoffs this season.
The Mariners last faced St. Ignatius in the first round of the CCS playoffs in 2011 and lost 35-31.
Last year, Aptos played against the Valley Christian Warriors -- also of the WCL -- in the CCS championship game and lost 51-20.
The Wildcats and Warriors went on to win the CCS D-III crown in their respective years after beating the Mariners.
If the Mariners are able to pull out the win Friday night it will be the program’s first CCS title since 2003.
“We’re very confident,” Joh said. “If we play Mariner football, nobody can stop us.”
“(St. Ignatius) and Aptos, I guess you could say it’s a little bit of a rivalry,” Joh said. “There are still some kids on this team that remember from two years ago. They want it too. We’re looking forward to it. We want to show that we can play some football over here in the coast.”
They showed Aragon in a 34-19 blowout in the first round, and proved it to Willow Glen Friday.
After holding a 14-10 lead at the half, the Mariners started the second half with an 8-play, 2-minute drive that culminated with a 21-yard touchdown pass on third-and-16 from Joh to Brooks Nicholson.
Then -- like they have all season -- the Mariners’ defense made a play.
Middle linebacker Dante Gomez picked off Rams quarterback Trent Paganini to nullify a 7-play Rams’ drive.
Joh and the army of Aptos running backs moved down the field in 10 plays and Austin Verdugo punched it in from 3-yards out to take the 28-10 lead with 6 minutes, and 44 seconds.
The Rams did fight back and eventually cut the Mariner lead to 11 points early in the fourth quarter, but a Willow Glen muffed punt at their own 10-yard line with 3:44 left in the game.
Verdugo took it in on the following play for the 10-yard score to put the Mariners back up 42-24, with 3:39 left in the game and Mariners safety Dalton Weitzle stopped the Rams’ final chance at fighting back into the game with an interception in the end zone.
It was his second interception of the game which gave him the school record at eight.
“We just relaxed and played our game,” Weitzle said. “We knew if we didn’t worry about them we would be fine.”
Rams star runner Hakeem Mays took off for a 78-yard touchdown to respond to the Mariners game-opening score from Louie Demicell, but was otherwise held in check.
Mays rumbled to 156 yards on the day and two scores, one of them coming through the air on a one-handed catch to bring the Rams within 11 points with 5:26 left in the game.
But his fumble on the Aptos punt stopped Willow Glen’s plans.
“We knew exactly what they were going to do, we just didn’t take care of business,” said Mays. “I think I played good, but I could’ve played better. I didn’t play well enough to win. Muffed the punt. I just made mistakes at times.”
“I let the team down,” Mays said. “(The muffed punt) was everything.”
Mays came into the game with 1,985 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Demicell finished the game with two scores -- both coming in the first half-- and sophomore running back Kyle Marks also added a 14-yard score around the right side of the line.
In total, the Mariners ran for 389 yards, with 216 of them coming in the second half.
“Willow Glen had some big guys but our guys didn’t back down,” Joh said.
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