There aren’t many nonleague prep football rivalries more contested than the one between Arroyo Grande and Nipomo.
With the all-time series tied 1-1, the two schools will meet at 7 tonight at Arroyo Grande’s Doug Hitchen Stadium.
The Titans’ varsity program started in 2003, a year after the school opened, splitting the talent in the Lucia Mar District with the Eagles — whose storied history includes four CIF-Southern Section divisional championships from 1987 to 1998.
But even with Nipomo in the Los Padres League and Arroyo Grande in the PAC 7, it was obvious the two would inevitably compete for area bragging rights in a symbolic fashion.
“These are kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “They love playing each other.”
Upon moving to Nipomo two years ago, Titans senior running back Devonte Jackson quickly learned it hardly mattered the two teams weren’t in the same league when it came to public perception.
“It’s very important,” Jackson said. “Ever since I moved here, I walk around town and it’s the first game (people discuss). It gets pretty intense.”
The schools’ first encounter came in 2008, with Nipomo seizing a 24-0 landmark victory that culminated in coach Russ Edwards being given a Gatorade bath.
“A lot of these boys played youth sports together, and most of the boys know each other,” Edwards said. “So they’ve got their own little gamesmanship going on.”
Last season, with both squads vastly improved from 2008, the Eagles claimed a 7-0 slugfest before a standing-room-only crowd that marked perhaps the most-hyped home game in Nipomo’s brief history to that point.
“It was just two good teams battling head to head, giving it their all,” Jackson recalled. “Our defense held, their defense held. It was a hard-fought game that everyone was tired after.”
Despite all the built-in community interest in the rivalry, Edwards and Goossen reiterated that league play should remain the overall focus of both teams.
After the shutout win two years ago, for instance, the Titans proceeded to lose five straight, including a four-game skid in the LPL that crippled any postseason aspirations.
In 2009, though, the Titans got Edwards’ message, going on a five-game winning streak late in the season and coming up with the first postseason win in school history.
Arroyo Grande opened this season with a 13-7 win at Lompoc last week, while Nipomo opened with a bye. Each coach said the advantages and disadvantages from that contrast cut both ways.
On one hand, the idle Titans were able to gather game film on the Eagles.
“They got to study our strengths and weaknesses and can plan accordingly,” Goossen said. “It’s one of those things where we’re flying blind with no instrumentation (in game planning), and hopefully we’ll land safely.”
In general, a certain amount of mystery already surrounded Nipomo heading into this year, as the Titans graduated 17 starters from last season, including three Division I signees and eight other all-league honorees.
“Last year, we both knew each other pretty well and knew what to expect,” Goossen said. “This year there’s some uncertainty on our part.”
By the same token, Edwards pointed out, the Eagles were able to work out their substitution patterns a week ago and, in theory, cut down on potential procedure penalties stemming from first-game jitters — a luxury the Titans didn’t have.
Arroyo Grande, which graduated four starting offensive linemen from a year ago, is nonetheless more experienced overall.
The Eagles don’t have any underclassmen on the roster, after featuring eight in 2009.
“I think on paper, they’re better than they have been the last two years, and they’ve got really good skill-position players at every spot,” Edwards said.
“They may be unproven on the offensive line, but they’re huge and athletic.”
Edwards noted their success in track and field as proof.
Last year, for example, Arroyo Grande’s Garrett Weinreich — now a 6-foot-6, 271-pound tackle — won the PAC 7 discus title as a sophomore at 165 feet, 11 inches. Brandon Berguia — now a 6-1, 239-pound offensive lineman — was seventh at 147-5, also as a sophomore.