Independent of each other, the Arroyo Grande and Atascadero high school football programs have been far from historical strangers to success.
What makes their PAC 7 league meeting at Memorial Stadium in Atascadero at 7:30 tonight a departure from recent years, though, is that they enter in position to make simultaneous playoff runs for just the second time since 2001.
“We’re thankful to be in a position where these (late-season) games mean something to both teams,” said Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen, who has been with the Eagles’ staff since 1986. “We’ve had some wars with (Atascadero) in the past going back to when coach (Larry) Welsh was there, and this is a very similar type of team to when Larry was there.”
That’s high praise.
From 1979 to 1996, Welsh led the Greyhounds to seven CIF-Southern Section divisional championships. From 1998 to 2004, they had seven straight losing seasons but have more than rebounded in recent years, claiming the past three PAC 7 championships and incurring just two league defeats since 2005.
By the same token, Arroyo Grande, which won four divisional crowns of its own from 1987 to 1998, could be at the dawn of a resurgence similar to that of Atascadero (6-2, 2-1).
After suffering through three straight losing seasons, the Eagles (7-1, 3-0) are off to their best overall start in six years.
“They’re extremely improved,” Atascadero coach Vic Cooper said. “Their coaching has always been there — they just seem to have quite a few horses (now). Everyone in the know around here kind of saw this coming. Their underclassmen have been pretty good there the past few years.”
Some Eagles making an impact are even underclassmen right now. In last week’s 26-10 win over Paso Robles, the 2008 PAC 7 runner-up and 2007 co-league champion, defensive back Seth Jacobs had a crowd-wowing, diving interception to stave off a Bearcats drive, and kicker Garrett Owens was 2 of 2 on field goals. Both are sophomores.
A number of juniors have also been accounted for — including running back Christian Crichton, whose 735 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 96 carries lead the team; 6-foot-4 receiver Lataurus Johnson, who has 15 catches for 185 yards and three scores; defensive back Garrett Coleman, who has 30 tackles and an interception; and tight end Kelly Shepard, who had a 4-yard touchdown catch last week.
Of course, veterans have had a hand in Arroyo Grande’s turnaround, as well. Particularly in sync is the Eagles’ offensive line, which boasts four seniors and has paved the way for a running attack averaging 230.8 yards on 37 carries per game.
At the same time, senior quarterback Matt McAustin has proven capable of balancing the Eagles’ traditionally run-heavy scheme, going 69-of-131 passing for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
“It’s kind of scary,” Cooper said. “They can play smash-mouth and look like the Arroyo Grande of old or spread it around (with the pass).”
Atascadero’s ground game has been even more imposing, racking up 264.1 rushing yards on 42 carries per game.
“Their offensive line is doing a great job,” Goossen said of a Greyhounds quintet led by reigning all-league selections in tackle Dalton Spinas and guard Conner King. Center A.J. Castaneda also started last year, and the group has welcomed guard Josh Mei, who has translated his power to the gridiron after advancing to the state wrestling championships last year.
“I’m very impressed with how they get off the ball,” Goossen continued. “Even in some of their losses, their offensive line is one of the best we’ve seen.”
Greyhounds junior quarterback Jesse Whitten had his best game of the season in a 49-35 win over Lompoc last week, going 7-of-12 passing for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
“Jesse was pretty poised in the pocket, and we were able to complement our running game,” Cooper said.
On three occasions this year, Atascadero’s defense has mounted second-half shutouts after getting off to slow starts.
Righetti (6-2, 3-0) will visit Arroyo Grande in the regular-season finale next week in what could be an outright league championship matchup, while Atascadero will wrap up its regular season by visiting Paso Robles (3-5, 1-2).
“To get a share of the league championship,” Cooper said, “we need to take care of business and then become A.G. fans when they play Righetti.”