Gunshots pause SDSU commit’s title game

Credit: Jim Gensheimer Mercury News

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Junipero Serra High School started the 2021 season 8-0.

They mauled their competition by an average score of 34-10. They looked like an unstoppable force until they came up against the immovable object. On the final game of the regular season, November 6, they were handily defeated by rival St. Francis High.  

“After our loss to Saint Francis, we were lost a little,” Serra RT Drew Azzopardi told the East Village Times.  “We didn’t blame each other; we were just not right. Our coaches saw it and called us out. We had chapel instead of practice and got everything out. We became a tighter team that day and have had great practices and games ever since.”

Three days before the loss, Azzopardi made a commitment to the Aztecs. He joined the class of 2022 because of the relationship he made with the coaches. The university fit his academic aspirations and SDSU’s winning culture. Azzopardi was also excited to be part of the first recruits to call the new Aztec stadium home. With his recruitment in the rearview mirror, Serra and Azzopardi dedicated themselves to chasing the CCS Division One title.

The rivals entered the tournament as the top two seeds and moved through the first two rounds with relative ease. It set up a rematch between Serra and St. Francis, the top two teams in the CCS, and two of the top 20 schools in the state of California. The championship was scheduled for Friday at 7 pm, leaving Azzopardi with some time on his hands before the game.  

“I did watch the SDSU game with my dad,” Azzopardi said when asked if he took in the Aztecs’ game on Friday. “It started a bit slow, and I was a little nervous, but the game momentum flipped, and SDSU dominated a tough Boise State team. Mountain West championship game next week, which is cool. SDSU has basically not had a home game all year, which is crazy.”

Credit: Twitter @DrewAzzo

His future school won their biggest game of the year to date. It was time for Serra to go to the same. Locked in a much tighter battle than the first matchup, the schools’ high-powered offenses were kept in check throughout. St. Francis took a 6-3 lead into the half. A 21-yard touchdown pass midway through the third put Serra ahead 10-3. With seven minutes to play in the game, St. Francis went back on top with a touchdown but missed the extra point. They led 12-10. Serra engineered a drive that will go down as one of the best in school history. With 2:18 left in the game, as Azzopardi cleared the way, QB Dominique Lampkin took a read-option for the score. What started as a moment of jubilation soon turned into chaos.

An active shooter began firing in the parking lot next to the stadium. As Serra scored the touchdown and went for a two-point conversion, word began to trickle down to the field and to the players that shots had been fired.

“The shooting occurred right before we scored the go-ahead touchdown,” Azzopardi said. “We heard the shooting, but it sounded like fireworks. We just kept playing until people started screaming to get down or run. We ran to the sidelines, and we were trying to hide behind the tents. We thought someone was inside the stadium shooting at people. My family and friends were there, so I was worried about them.”

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Video of the moment just after the teams learned of the shooting in the area have been posted to social media. They show St. Francis players ducking for cover and Serra’s team sprinting away trying to find cover. School officials and police informed everyone the incident occurred outside the stadium and were safe inside. For 30 to 40 minutes, no one was allowed to leave the stadium, and the teams were not permitted to continue playing.  

“It was pretty crazy,” Azzopardi said. “We really just didn’t know what was going on. Then we heard that the shooting happened in the parking lot and everyone was ok inside the stadium. I then just wanted to finish the game and beat Saint Francis.”

Once the all-clear was given, the teams had a three-minute warm-up period. After that, Serra teed up a kick, and play resumed. St. Francis eventually turned the ball over on downs. Serra ran out the clock. Azzopardi emerged a champion.

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“The D1 CCS championship means everything to us,” Azzopardi explained. “Plus, we avenged our only loss against our rival, so the win is even better. They talked a lot after beating us, so getting revenge was great. Our school is 7-0 in CCS championship games, and Coach Walsh is 6-0. We did not want to be the team that lost.”

In the month since his commitment to the Aztecs, Tulane and Arizona have extended scholarship offers. Azzopardi remains “locked into SDSU,” though he is still not “exactly sure when” he will sign. For now, his focus shifts from the section to the state playoffs. Serra plays Mater Dei in the Open Division State Final on December 11th at Saddleback College.

Two people sustained non-life-threatening injuries as a result of the shooting incident. It was a reminder of what has become an all too common refrain. Life is about more than sports. On the other hand, another lesson emerged from Serra and St. Francis’ response, one that is equally true. Sometimes in the face of difficulty, the thing to do is to keep playing.

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