‘Five wide, let ’em fly’: Chapter 3 — Touchdown TJ and Iron Will

It was TJ Campbell’s turn to take over the title of St. Bernard’s Academy starting quarterback in 2017.

And once again, the Crusaders record book writers had to get their pencils ready for a new edition to the program’s all-time list.

“Campbell was gun-slinger like Noah Davis,” St. Bernard’s head coach Matt Tomlin said. “He could make every throw on the field.”

The Crusaders went a perfect 10-0 during the 2017 regular season — the first undefeated regular season for Tomlin and the program since his arrival in 2013. Campbell led an offense which averaged 49 points-per-game and one which scored more than 60 points on four occasions.

In short, Campbell was remarkable in 2017. The senior threw for four or more touchdowns in 11 of the Crusaders’ 12 games and finished with 4,060 passing yards and a still-intact program record of 57 touchdown passes. His favorite targets, Micha Fontenot-Cornely and Bryce Gratz, each had 18 touchdown receptions on the year.

“What peaked my interest about St. Bernard’s was how much they passed the ball,” Campbell said. “I think throwing the ball around just makes the game more fun for everybody. It was special to be a part of that program.”

The first-round of the North Coast Section Division 4 postseason saw the Crusaders down San Marin 64-21 behind four touchdown passes from Campbell.

St. Bernard’s Academy quarterback TJ Campbell, class of 2018. (Contributed)

57 could have been 70-plus

The second-round of the Division 4 playoffs pitted St. Bernard’s against Fortuna.

Campbell threw five touchdowns in the the game, including one in the final seconds to bring the Crusaders within one-point of the Huskies, 34-33.

Tomlin and his team opted to try a 2-point conversion.

It failed, ending the Crusaders’ season.

“One of the things about our program is that we have the mindset of playing to win,” Tomlin said. “And that’s what we did that day. We play to win in everything we do…and that’s a life lesson.”

Fortuna went on to beat Hercules 44-0 in the section title game before beating Bear River 34-20 in the NorCal championship and Katella 54-33 in the state championship game.

St. Bernard’s was the only team to push Fortuna during the Huskies’ historic run.

If that fateful 2-point conversion succeed and St. Bernard’s advanced and Campbell maintained his touchdown passes per-game average, the Crusaders may very well have captured another state championship.

And Campbell, who finished the season averaging nearly five touchdown passes per game, may have wound up with 70 or more on the year.

“We kind of knew then, and we definitely know now that that was the state championship game,” Campbell said of the loss to Fortuna. “Regardless of the loss, that was the most fun I’ve ever had in game. It was such a back-and-forth game.

“I’ve learned to appreciate that loss over the years for what it was,” the quarterback said. “I think I learned more just in terms of being a young man and how to handle life from that game than any other. Maybe more than I would have learned if we went all the way (to state).”

Playing up

2018 was a new dawn for the Crusaders. After four straight outright Little 4 titles, the conference as it was known came to an end. South Fork had already dropped down to 8-person football prior to the 2017 season, leaving the Little 4 with just three teams for a year. Prior to the start of the 2018 season the H-DNL Board of Managers adopted a realignment process which effectively sent St. Bernard’s to the Big 5 (now known as the Big 4) and dropped Arcata and McKinleyville down to the Little 4, evening out the two conferences with four teams in each.

The realignment was spurred by the NCS’s adoption of the “competitive equity” model in 2016. The model aims to organize teams into section divisions based on their success on the field rather than the size of their school. St. Bernard’s, by far the smallest school in the Humboldt-Del Norte League with around 150 students in a given year, had more competitive equity points than both Arcata and McKinleyville.

The league’s realignment process — which the league’s board re-approved for another two years beginning with the 2020 season — deemed that St. Bernard’s then be sent up to the Big 4 and Arcata and McKinleyville, down to the Little 4 based of those competitive equity points.

The official word from the league office is that because the NCS didn’t adopt the competitive equity model until 2016 and because South Fork was a member of the Little 4 through the 2016 season, there was no cause to shake up the Little 4 during Ferndale’s 14-year run as conference champs.

Five years of Tomlin’s program running roughshod over the Little 4 was, apparently, enough to make the move.

“At the end of the day I think its a compliment to our program,” Tomlin said. “I don’t think people know what to do with us.”

Entering the 2018 season the Crusaders knew they would face Eureka, Del Norte and Fortuna in conference play.

2018 — Iron Will

The man who would lead the Crusaders into battle against the Big 4 powers was Will Omey.

“Omey put us back to where we were with Jack Rice,” Tomlin said. “This offense could be whatever it needed to be with Omey.”

The Crusaders opened their 2018 run with five straight wins before falling on the road to Marin Catholic.

The Crusaders began conference play at Eureka against a Loggers team which was enjoying its own mammoth run of success at the time which would see the team through to a NorCal bowl game appearance.

The Crusaders fell 54-21.

The following week St. Bernard’s played at Fortuna in a rematch of the aforementioned 2017 section playoff game. It went to overtime. Fortuna scored first, and St. Bernard’s matched it.

Once again, Tomlin went for two.

Success. Instant Classic II (as this newspaper dubbed the game) saw the Crusaders emerge as 56-54 victors.

Fast forward to the second-round of the postseason.

St. Bernard’s faced talented San Marin team on the road. Omey passed for two touchdowns and ran for another five but the Crusaders came up short, 49-47.

Omey’s performance in the playoff loss — two passing touchdowns, 277 yards through the air, five rushing touchdowns and 260 yards on the ground — earned him one of eight finalist nominations for MaxPreps’s National Player of the Week award.

Omey finished his junior year with 2,271 passing yards and 31 touchdowns to go along with 1,413 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. Lane Thrap, Omey’s cousin and teammate throughout their childhood, caught 12 touchdowns to lead the team.

“Ever since he got to St. Bernard’s, Tomlin has made a football a family — and I think we do that better than everyone,” Omey said. “I grew up watching those teams with (Noah Davis) and (Jack Rice). And we felt like we had to live up to what those guys did.”

2019 — Champions again

“What’s most impressive about Will is that he saved his biggest game for the biggest moment,” Tomlin said.

After a 7-3 regular season run punctuated by the Crusaders’ first-ever win over cross-town foe Eureka (Oct. 26, 21-13 at home), St. Bernard’s rattled off four consecutive postseason victories to capture the program’s fifth section title and second NorCal state bowl game championship.

Omey was unstoppable during the postseason run, accounting for 18 total touchdowns including six in the Crusaders’ 45-29 NorCal bowl win over East Nicolaus.

“I think we always did a great job of surprising teams with our tempo and our variety on offense,” Omey said. “Tomlin is the kind of coach to watch like every college football game on a Saturday and copy whatever he feels like could help our team.”

On Dec. 14, 2019, St. Bernard’s became the first team ever to host a state championship football game in Humboldt County.

St. Bernard’s hosted South-Torrance in the Division 6-AA title game at the Redwood Bowl and emerged as champions by a 34-20 margin.

Omey rushed for four touchdowns and passed for another in the program’s second state championship victory, leading the Crusaders to the promise land against a school with nearly 20-times the number of students.

Omey finished his senior season with 3,664 passing yards and 40 touchdowns to go along with 1,516 rushing yards and 20 scores on the ground. He was named the CalHiSports.com Small Schools Player of the Year for his spectacular senior campaign.

“We were an undersized team (in 2019),” Omey said. “But you don’t always have to match a team size for size. You can use speed and you can surprise teams to where they don’t know what’s coming.

“There’s not a chance I would ever have wanted to play for anyone else other than coach Tomlin,” Omey said.

2020 — Joyner’s turn

It’ll be Bode Joyner’s show next Fall.

The 6-foot-4 senior-to-be made infrequent appearances at quarterback during each of the last two seasons, doing so mostly in the second half of blowout wins or, rarely, for a bit of trickery.

“(Joyner) might have the strongest arm of any guy I’ve had yet,” Tomlin said. “Like (Campbell) and (Davis), he can make any throw on the field.”

When Joyner leads the 2020 Crusaders into their season opener, he will begin a new chapter in the program’s record books.

A collection which holds some of the most defining numbers in H-DNL football history.

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