It has been six years since the Arroyo Grande High football team started a season this well. But the toughest part of the Eagles’ schedule is undoubtedly ahead.
Arroyo Grande (6-1, 2-0 PAC 7) got its first two league wins over fifth-place San Luis Obispo (3-4, 1-2), 35-7, and last-place Lompoc (0-7, 0-3), 41-12.
The Eagles will look to continue to validate their improvement against last year’s PAC 7 runner-up and the 2007 co-league champion Paso Robles (3-4, 1-1) when they visit the Bearcats at War Memorial Stadium at 7:30 tonight. Paso Robles beat them 34-0 last year.
“Any game like this is going to present a challenge and an opportunity for us to kind of get a little redemption,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said.
And the slate doesn’t get any easier. On Nov. 6, Arroyo Grande takes a trip to Atascadero (5-2, 1-1), the three-time defending league champion.
“They’ve (still) got to go through those two teams,” Righetti coach Gary Wilson noted. “They’ve got their hands full with Paso and Atascadero.”
Wilson would know. Two weeks ago, his Warriors (5-2, 2-0) handed Atascadero just its second league defeat since 2005. Last week, they edged the Bearcats 22-16. If Arroyo Grande and Righetti can make it out of the next two weeks unscathed, it would set up a Nov. 13 showdown for the league title.
“The schedule gets harder from here on out,” Eagles center Zach Melson said.
According to CalPreps.com’s state power ratings, Arroyo Grande has had the weakest strength of schedule amongst PAC 7 teams to this point, with an 8.2 rating. Paso Robles has had the strongest, at 26.4, with its nonleague losses coming to Westlake, St. Joseph and El Diamante, which have gone a combined 20-1.
The Bearcats offense is led by senior quarterback Thomas Bernal, who ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries last week.
“All he’s done is gotten better over the years,” Goossen said of Bernal, a third-year starter.
When Bernal isn’t dropping back or keeping the ball, he’s usually handing off to Robbie Burbank, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound running back who has 173 carries for 14 scores and an area-best 1,331 rushing yards.
Arroyo Grande’s running game is no slouch either, churning up a team total of 1,595 yards and 24 touchdowns on 238 carries behind a stout front led by Melson, 6-7, 288-pound tackle Sean Brown and guard Robert Kobara — all seniors.
“All the seniors on the line have great leadership,” said Eagles running back Christian Crichton, who has a team-best 673 rushing yards and eight scores on 82 attempts. “We understand each other really well.”
The linemen have been learning under Scott Shepard, a former Oregon blocker and the Eagles’ offensive line coach since 1986.
Crichton had his most productive game of the season last week, with 17 carries for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
“Christian, at times, becomes his own blocker,” Goossen said. “(The linemen) don’t always have to be perfect.”
Crichton, just a junior, was kept fresh prior to league play, seeing only a combined 15 carries during a 65-14 clobbering of Santa Maria and a 38-7 rout of San Marcos.
“We don’t think that Crichton gets enough credit,” Melson added. “He’s kind of shifty, and he’s a big guy.”The Eagles’ more diversified passing attack is also dangerous, as quarterback Matt McAustin has connected with four receivers — Anthony Cabreros, Lataurus Johnson, John Alexander and Garrett Owens — for more than 140 yards apiece.
If they can complement Crichton tonight, it might go a long way in further emboldening Arroyo Grande at the top of the league standings. The Eagles haven’t beaten Paso Robles since 2006 and Atascadero since 2005.
Also looking to continue to serve notice that it’s a viable contender is Righetti, which has been mired in third- or fourth-place finishes in the PAC 7 the past three years.
“We’re always very competitive,” Wilson said, citing a number of key injuries that contributed to the recurrent pedestrian placing. “Through the course of the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to put something together.”
The Warriors will host San Luis Obispo while Lompoc will visit Atascadero, both also at 7:30.
“They’re down a little bit,” Wilson said of San Luis Obispo and Lompoc, “but we’ve seen (struggling) teams come out and play at a top level.
“There is a lot of parity this year.”