At the beginning of the school year, St. Monica Catholic athletic director Frank Cruz said there was excitement on campus about the school’s football team.

And the Mariners have shown why.

Under the direction of second-year coach Drew Shaw, St. Monica has won eight games in a row and demonstrated its postseason potential heading into its regular-season finale tonight against North Hollywood-Campbell Hall at Santa Monica College.

Having already secured a conference title, the Mariners (8-1, 4-0 in the Santa Fe League) will be looking to build momentum as they prepare for the upcoming CIF Southern Section playoffs. They are currently listed at No. 7 in the East Valley Division rankings.

It’s been an era of rapid progress for St. Monica, which won five games last season after picking up just three victories in 2013.

“It started with a really competitive offseason,” Shaw said. “The guys really decided to step up their work ethic. A couple new coaches I hired made a big difference. And we gained a lot of experience. We were a pretty young team last year. We had a lot of sophomores and juniors starting, and now they’re juniors and seniors. We’ve just gotten a lot better.”

During the current winning streak, the Mariners have outscored their eight opponents by a combined margin of 323-102 and topped the 45-point benchmark four times.

They have also been tested in dangerously close contests, emerging unscathed in three games decided by two points or fewer.

The first came Sept. 4, when St. Monica scored its only touchdown on a fourth-quarter run by junior Dylan James to snatch a 12-10 win over Palm Desert-Xavier Prep.

The Mariners were tested again Oct. 9, when they edged San Pedro-Mary Star of the Sea 49-48 in overtime. Senior quarterback Cameron Nuslein threw for two touchdowns and rushed for two more scores in the game to lead the attack for St. Monica, which also had key contributions from junior Justin Thomas (147 rushing yards), James (119 rushing yards) and senior Chase Bryan (16 tackles).

But perhaps the team’s most thrilling victory came against Long Beach-St. Anthony this past Friday, when senior kicker Daniel Zand nailed a 28-yard field goal as time expired to give St. Monica a 17-16 triumph.

“We are a very tough-minded team this year,” Shaw said. “We’ve been down four times at halftime. … This past week, we were down by nine at halftime. But his team has really shown they’re mentally tough, and it’s been really cool to watch that happen and be a part of that.”

In their blowouts and nail-biters, the Mariners have benefited from standout play on both sides of the ball.

Nuslein has thrown for 984 yards and 14 touchdowns in nine games and added five scores on the ground.

The squad’s rushing attack has delivered in big moments. James has amassed 465 yards and nine touchdowns, Thomas has added 650 yards and five scores and junior Carlos Fuller has chipped in 248 yards and five trips to the end zone.

St. Monica senior Caleb Raymond has led the receiving corps with 20 catches and five touchdowns, but junior Ryan Romero (167 yards and four scores), sophomore Tommy Nigro (13 catches) and Bryan (111 yards) have made pivotal plays. Junior receivers Michael Flores and Jorge Arroyo have also reeled in touchdown catches this season.

The Mariners’ offense is complemented by a stout defense that has given up an average of just 16.2 points per game.

Bryan (63 tackles and three interceptions) is pacing a unit that also includes junior Brendan Balter (52 tackles), freshman Nate Davis (42 tackles), Raymond (36 tackles), junior Cole McPherson (33 tackles and three picks) and senior Elias Hackney (30 tackles and seven sacks).

jeff@www.smdp.com