Saving the best for last might not be the case in PAC 7 football this year.
Although tonight’s games will be the league’s first of the season, one in particular could conceivably turn out to be as important as any other matchup to take place over the next month-and-a-half.
Atascadero High will visit Arroyo Grande at 7 tonight, with each team entering 4-0.
They’re the PAC 7’s only squads ranked in this week’s CIF-Southern Section Western Division poll (Arroyo Grande is at No. 6 and Atascadero No. 8), and are each averaging margins of victory between 25 and 27 points per game.
“I’m not going to lie to you — it’s an important game for us,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “It’d be silly to say it’s not a big game.
“But I have a feeling we’re going to be in a lot of big games. No way is Game 5 (on any schedule any year) going to be a league-title game.”
In other PAC 7 openers also at 7 tonight, Paso Robles (1-2) will host San Luis Obispo (2-2), and St. Joseph (2-1) will travel to Righetti (3-1). The latter contest is the first meeting between the two Santa Maria neighbors since 1990, as St. Joseph joined the league this past offseason.
Atascadero coach Vic Cooper, while acknowledging tonight’s game against Arroyo Grande is “obviously a pretty good matchup,” also downplayed any thought that it could ultimately determine the eventual league champion.
“It isn’t a do-or-die situation,” Cooper said. “Win or lose, you’re not going to cruise (the rest of the way) to a league championship.”
It’s the second year in a row the Greyhounds and Eagles have met with nearly identical résumés.
In 2009, each finished 7-4 overall, but Atascadero won the head-to-head meeting 37-14 after rushing for 225 more yards on 37 more carries and claiming five turnovers.
Although each team graduated a majority of their starting offensive linemen from a year ago, both Cooper and Goossen were complimentary of each other’s play up front this season.
“They’re moving people off the ball and getting a lot of great surge that makes all their skill players better,” Cooper said.
Echoed Goossen: “They’re a mirror of what our philosophy is. We’re going to be tested this Friday like we haven’t been tested thus far.”
While Atascadero is churning out 288.3 rushing yards per game, second-year starting quarterback Jesse Whitten is passing for nearly 54 yards more per game than he did last season — thanks in large part to the emergences of receivers Logan Sprouse and Luke Allen, as well as tight end Weston Walker.
“I definitely have a lot more confidence in our passing game this year,” Cooper said, “not only with Jesse coming back, but because he’s got about five good targets he can throw the ball to.”
Aided by overwhelming halftime leads, Arroyo Grande has used its nonleague schedule to substitute en masse, even rotating its starting quarterbacks (Seth Jacobs and Brent Vanderveen) and running backs (Christian Crichton and Ciaran Costa) virtually 50-50. All have produced.
“That’s kind of their blueprint for success,” Cooper said, “getting lots of people work early in the season and not overusing guys (before league play).”
Bearcats, Tigers hope tough schedules pay off
Paso Robles has faced the most difficult nonleague opponents of any Central Coast school thus far, having lost 54-25 to Fresno Central and 62-28 to Bakersfield Centennial. Each is ranked in the top 35 of the state (Centennial at No. 13) by CalPreps.com and feature multiple Pac-10 recruits.
The Bearcats have one more tough nonleague game remaining, an Oct. 8 home date against 3-0 St. Francis of La Cañada.
In CalPreps’ strength-of-schedule calculations, Paso Robles overwhelmingly leads the PAC 7, with the runner-up being San Luis Obispo. Indeed, the Tigers’ early-season schedule hasn’t been soft in its own right, with a last-second 19-15 loss coming to Kingsburg, the defending Central Section Division IV champion, and a 34-27 defeat versus Oxnard, which has the fifth-leading rusher in the state in running back Terrell Watson.
Paso Robles won last year’s matchup between the two 62-7, but the Tigers, in their second year of running what had been a brand-new triple-option offense in 2009, are averaging 14 more points per game this time.