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CIF-SS DIV. 12 CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW – Cerritos up for fourth straight challenge as Dons play for school’s first football championship

GOING FOR THE TITLE: from (l-r) Cerritos High senior Gabe Gaudi, junior Nathaniel Crawford, first-year head coach Demel Franklin, senior Josh Park, senior Jeremiah Bagaygay and junior Ruben Castro at this past Monday’s 47th CIF-Southern Section Press Conference and Luncheon. PHOTO BY LOREN KOPFF.

November 21, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

LONG BEACH-In a season of firsts, it would only be fitting that Cerritos High would enjoy another first before the hardest week of practice in school history. The Dons advanced to the semifinals for the first time when they defeated Western Christian High in the quarterfinals, then advanced to the CIF-Southern Section Division 12 title game for the first time last week with a two-touchdown win over top-seeded Coachella Valley High.

As Cerritos prepares for its next task, squaring off against second-ranked Yucca Valley High at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday at Artesia High, the team added one more first to its resume. This past Monday, the Dons attended the 47th CIF-SS Press Conference and Luncheon at The Grand in Long Beach, an event for the coaches, some players and school personnel of the 32 teams participating in the 11-man and 8-man football finals. Cerritos was represented by first-year head coach Demel Franklin, senior linebacker Jeremiah Bagaygay, senior linebacker and safety Gabe Gaudi, senior running back Josh Park, junior cornerback wide receiver Ruben Castro, junior linebacker Nathaniel Crawford, principal Dr. Patrick Walker and athletic director Todd Denhart.

The Dons, who have been on an emotional roller coaster over the past quarter of a century that has included 11 head coaches, five trips to the playoffs since 2000, four winning seasons (not including the 3-1 Covid spring season of 2021) and three winless seasons, including the 2012 campaign in which Cerritos cancelled all six league games. Now, it is one win away from a CIF championship and a nine-win season, which would tie the 2001 season for most wins in a season.

“I had heard whisperings of the program being shut down and my son wanted to go there,” Franklin remembered. “I [asked], ‘are you sure’? He said, ‘yeah, I like the environment; I want to play there’. When I started coaching there [at the lower levels], you started to kind of see they are really heavy on academics and my coaching style is in your face and I didn’t know if that was going to work.”

The Dons are riding a six-game winning streak into their meeting with Yucca Valley. The three-time defending 605 League champions have scored 244 points during the streak after putting up 105 in their first seven games. The offense is centered around the Mount Rushmore of Cerritos running backs. They are senior Dikshanta Adhikari (144 carries, 804 yards, five touchdowns), Park (97 carries, 668 yards, 13 touchdowns), junior Josiah Ungos (115 carries, 527 yards, four touchdowns) and sophomore Justin Sagun (48 carries, 305 yards, two touchdowns). The rest of the team has combined for 305 yards and seven touchdowns.

Sagun is also the quarterback, though he has thrown for 544 yards and nine touchdowns while the other signal caller, senior Julian Morales, has passed for 452 yards and five scores. Cerritos took a major hit a few weeks ago when junior wide receiver Ruben Castro injured his collarbone. He is done for the season, but leads the team with 45 receptions, 570 yards and five touchdowns. Adhikari and Park are targets to catch the ball, as is junior John Lim, who has caught nine passes for 143 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“We all want yards, so we’re always determined to get the ball and make sure we get the most yardage we can,” said Park.

The Cerritos defense has come on strong as of late, dismissing the fact that it has faced two straight teams that scored over 475 points and will see another one in Yucca Valley. The Dons have held six opponents to under 20 points this season. Leading the charge on this side of the ball are Crawford (107 tackles, two sacks), sophomore linebacker Tyler Ky (97 tackles), Bagaygay and Gaudi (81 tackles each) and sophomore linebacker Jacob Hoosac (63 tackles). Bagaygay also leads the team with half a dozen sacks while senior linebacker and lineman Moises Mendoza has three sacks.

The path to the finals includes defeating Fillmore High, the fourth-ranked team, Western Christian, which had upset fifth-seeded Victor Valley High in the first round and Coachella Valley. The combined record of Cerritos’ playoff victims is 24-12.

“I’ve been realizing every game we’ve been having season-ending injuries,” said Franklin. “Dislocated elbow, broken this, broken that. So, we’re missing guys. We missed Ruben Castro this past weekend and he is so dynamic on offense and defense and having to try to replace him on both sides, also as well as special teams…you lose three starters. Just plugging the holes and getting through it, I’m just so proud of these kids.”

“I think it was teamwork,” said Park of the win over Coachella Valley. “We all wanted to make sure we go to the finals; we were all determined.”

Yucca Valley enters the contest at 10-3 and won all seven of its Desert Valley League games. The Trojans, who have scored 553 points, defeated Hacienda Heights Wilson High 49-21 in the first round, Buena Park High 35-0 in the quarterfinals and Santa Fe High 35-13 last Friday. Yucca Valley enters the contest on a 10-game winning streak after falling to Rancho Christian High 40-13, Valley View High 35-33 and Granite Hills High 63-21 to begin the season. This will be the farthest west the Trojans have travelled this season, having previously gone to Banning, Cathedral City, Desert Mirage and Temecula for road games. This will be their first road game since Oct. 20. Yucca Valley has reached the finals before, but not since 1996 when it got past Cathedral High 22-19 in the Division XI championship game.

Quarterback Michael Ramos Jr. has passed for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns opposite five interceptions. But the offense lies in the running game where Yucca Valley has gained 3,165 yards and scored 51 touchdowns. Myles Harper is the one to slow down, or stop, as he has rushed for 1,704 yards and scored 27 times. Next would be Malachi Harper (82 carries, 633 yards, five touchdowns) and Stephon Rogers (61 carries, 357 yards, five touchdowns).

The leading receiver is Javin Hudson, with 57 catches for 946 yards and 11 scores while on defense, Myles Harper leads the way with 146 tackles while Brody Herrera has 108 tackles and four and a half sacks. Hudson also has six interceptions and Joseph Natzel another five sacks to the team’s total.

“We just have to trust what we see with our eyes,” said Franklin. “We study a lot, we go over stuff a lot and as far as scoring 500 points, we don’t look at that. We just know they’ve never played us. I know what my boys can do, and we’ve been waiting for this moment. We’ve worked since the spring for this moment.”

“I think we can run through them, just like we did the past three games,” said Park. “Our defense is pretty good, and I think our defense will stop them.

Prediction: Cerritos 38 Yucca Valley 31

Last week’s predictions: 0-2

Season to date: 52-18