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CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION FOOTBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW – Trio of area teams host first round games as playoffs get underway

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

It’s not often that more than one or two area football teams are home for the first round of the CIF-Southern Section divisional playoffs, but that’s what lies ahead for Cerritos High, Norwalk High and Valley Christian High. The brackets were released this past Sunday and the latter two area teams are highly ranked, meaning if everything stays true to form, expect deep runs from Norwalk and Valley Christian. All three games are Friday at 7:00.

DIVISION 10

Rio Hondo Prep (8-1) @ #3 Norwalk High (9-1)-After seeing their eight-game winning streak snapped by Gahr High on Oct. 21, the Lancers bounced back with a 46-0 shutout against Firebaugh High last week for their third whitewash of the season and the fifth time Norwalk has allowed less than seven points. Despite the unexpected upset loss to Gahr, the Lancers were destined to grab one of the top four seeds.

“Based on the season we had, we felt pretty good about our work and the kids worked really, really hard,” said Norwalk head coach Ruben Guerrero. “We thought whatever division we were in we should have been close to the top.”

The Lancers racked up nearly 3,500 yards on the ground this season, thanks in part to seniors Michael Mueller (1,501 yards, 23 touchdowns) and David Herrera (1,080 yards, 17 touchdowns). However, Herrera missed nearly the final three games after an elbow injury in the first quarter of the Bellflower High game on Oct. 14 and his status for the first round game is uncertain. Still, Norwalk has always plugged in a replacement and this time, seniors Caden Barnhill and Anthony Martinez, who combined for 413 yards and nine touchdowns, will be asked to complement Mueller. Barnhill is also the quarterback but attempted 12 passes all season.

“If David can’t go, we’ve kind of come together as a group and we’ve all come to the conclusion that everybody on this team has worked very, very hard to get here,” said Guerrero. “It’s going to take everybody; it’s going to take a joint effort to have success here in the postseason.”

Defensively, the Lancers are paced by senior Daniel Castillo (87 tackles, three sacks), junior Jesse Lopez (67 tackles, three sacks), Mueller (47 tackles) and Martinez (44 tackles). The Lancers also have picked off opposing signal callers 15 times.

Rio Hondo Prep finished in second place in the Gold Coast League and began the season with seven straight wins. Last Friday, the Kares defeated Campbell Hall High 19-7, the fifth time they have held their opponents to less than 10 points. Rio Hondo Prep also has two shutouts and have yielded 101 points.

Ryan McCulloch and Noah Penunuri have combined for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns with the former also catching 15 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. Nathan Curtis leads the Kares with 17 receptions for 397 yards and seven scores and on defense, it’s McCulloch (54 tackles, 12 sacks), Penunuri (37 tackles) and Curtis (30 tackles) leading the way. The Kares also have a dozen interceptions.

“For our guys, [Rio Hondo Prep] is very sharp on their schemes,” said Guerrero. “They mix up the run and the pass pretty well and they have a really good runner. They have two key guys and if we let them run loose on us, we’re going to be in trouble.

“Then they’ll mix in some play action pass, so we have to stay true to our keys on defense,” he continued. “If we can do [those two things], we feel pretty good about our chances. I know they have a lot of experience in the postseason, and they have a couple of strengths going their way. We’re working really hard to put our best foot forward come Friday.”

Guerrero concluded that the key to beating the Kares will be the offense, which is getting back to where it started at the beginning of the season and as long as it can get on a roll like it has in the past, the offense can get back to that ‘Norwalk ground and pound game’.

Prediction: Norwalk 35, Rio Hondo Prep 28

DIVISION 12

Rancho Alamitos High (9-1) @ #2 Valley Christian High (3-7)-If there is one team that is thankful for the new playoff system, it has to be Valley Christian. While it’s not uncommon to see teams with three victories advance to the playoffs, the Defenders pulled off a rarity by grabbing the No. 2 seed as an at-large team despite winning one Ironwood League game and finishing in fifth place out of the six-team circuit.

To say that first-year head coach Nick Walker is ecstatic would be an understatement. Since he found out who and where the Defenders would be playing, he had not been off the phone most of this past Sunday. In fact, the prospects of going to the playoffs were talked about prior to last Friday’s game at Village Christian High, a 23-0 loss.

“It’s just god working in mysterious ways and giving us that actual opportunity,” said Walker. “Like we told the boys, there’s a possibility. We’ve seen crazier stuff happen and with that, we told them to be ready and [they] might get the Hudl information Sunday afternoon. They got it about noon today.”

Walker cites the strength of schedule for the main reason why the Defenders are in the playoffs. League champion Aquinas High, whom V.C. lost to 50-14, is the fourth-seeded team in Division 5. El Dorado High, which began the season with a 35-0 win over the Defenders, went 7-3 and got an at-large berth in Division 6. Aliso Niguel High, a 35-14 winner in the third game of the season, advanced as an at-large team in Division 8 while Chino High, which edged V.C. 17-14 a week after the Aliso Niguel game, drew top-seeded Capistrano Valley Christian High in Division 11.

“We played some really good teams, from El Dorado to Aliso Niguel to Aquinas to our league,” said Walker. “Hats off to our league because we’re a powerful league and I think we all deserve it. No game was given. Everybody worked hard and worked their tails off and put their best foot forward.”

In between the two shutout losses, the Defenders defeated Gahr High 42-9, Artesia High 46-0 and Big Bear High 35-21 for their three victories. However, in the other five games, V.C. failed to score 20 points, and for the season, it allowed over 25 points five times.

The Vaqueros were tied for first place in the Garden Grove League and their lone setback came in the eighth game of the season when they fell to La Quinta High 12-10. Rancho Alamitos, which ended the season with a 10-0 win at Santiago High, has a 10-point win vs. Los Amigos High, a three-point win at La Sierra High, and one-point victories over Bolsa Grande High and Ocean View High on its resume. The Vaqueros scored 219 points while giving up roughly 10 points a game.

“When I looked [at the film], they’re good,” said Walker. “Don’t get it wrong. At 9-1, they have a good team. They’re disciplined and they play hard football. The fact to the matter for us, and it’s been our motto all season, is execute. Refuse to lose, be the best that you can be, give 110 percent and I can’t be mad at anything besides that.”

When V.C. is on offense, Walker said his team needs to block, which has been ‘a big de facto this year’ in the close losses. Junior quarterback Joe DeYoung, who has come on strong as of late, will be the key factor to the success on this side of the ball.

“Joe has to complete his passes,” said Walker. “His confidence is through the roof right now and he’s playing good football. He had an off night [at Village Christian] and we’ll give him that because he’s played all season pretty decent. He’s coming off a 326 yard passing day against Big Bear.”

When the Defenders are on defense, Walker said his team needs to get to quarterback Chris Hurley and states that junior strong safety Isaiah Jordan will be the key if he can, ‘make the correct reads and stop the run and tackle’. Other key components on defense will be seniors Casey Bouma, Nick Bozanic and Major Brown and sophomore JoJo Apisala.

“They’re going to do what they do,” he added. “They’re really good ball players, but if Isaiah Jordan can put it all together and be that defensive stopper, I believe that we’ll be in a good position.”

Prediction: Rancho Alamitos 24, Valley Christian 14.

DIVISION 14

Colton High (5-5) @ Cerritos High (5-5)-This one figures to be an interesting matchup as the 605 League champions are riding the wave of a four-game winning streak while Colton, the second place team from the Skyline League, enter the playoffs winning three straight and four of its last five.

Cerritos benefited from a down season by the other three league teams, outscoring them 113-34. Tack on a 26-6 win against Gahr High just before league play began, and it’s easy to see why head coach Brad Carter is all smiles. But the Dons won’t know what to expect from a Yellowjackets team that got past Notre Dane High 50-46 last week. They have scored 279 points, but also surrendered 268 points.

“They do a lot of stuff on offense,” said Carter. “Last week, they did Bellflower-[type] double wing run, run, run. Then in the four previous games, they ran the spread. They kind of had success with both, so it’s kind of interesting why they moved away from the spread. We’re very curious to see how they’re going to come out against us on Friday. But we’ll obviously be prepared for both.”

Carter says the game against Troy High back on Sept. 15, a 49-6 homecoming loss, prepared the Dons of what they’ll be facing against Colton. And while he added that he doesn’t have any familiarity with the Yellowjackets, Carter likes where his team is at right now and thinks Cerritos is playing its bast football of the season.

“Absolutely,” he exclaimed. “After we lost to Chino, we made a commitment to each other in the room. We said…we took it one game at a time, but we’re done losing. I told the kids I don’t care what we need to do during the week, we are done losing football games. They took that to heart. We’re working harder, we’re lifting harder, we’re coming together as a team. So, I’m excited for the playoffs. We all are.”

Junior quarterback Jake Bautista has come on strong the second half of the season and has completed 41 of 64 passes for 566 yards with four touchdowns. But the strength of the offense lies with its running game, led by sophomore Kalib Moran (120 carries, 616 yards, 12 touchdowns), Bautista (53 carries, 320 yards, four touchdowns), junior Josh Park (53 carries, 259 yards, three touchdowns) and sophomore Dikshanta Adhikari (39 carries, 117 yards, two touchdowns). Moran is also the leading receiver with 24 catches for 309 yards and a touchdown while on defense, sophomore Nathaniel Crawford and junior Jeremiah Bagaygay lead the way with 87 and 59 tackles respectively. Both also have five sacks and have accounted for half the sacks the defense has.

“I think Nate Crawford is going to be in the run box when you’re in the middle,” said Carter. “He’s going to be in the middle of all the runs and I think is going to have a good game. Jeremiah Bagaygay is going to have an explosive game and then Nate Crawford’s brother, Bailey; he’s only a freshman, but he’s really turned into a great lineman for us. I think those three will have big games for us on Friday.”

Prediction: Cerritos 35, Colton 31.

Last week: 4-2

Season to date: 43-16-1

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