Collectively, northern Santa Barbara County high schools had their way with San Luis Obispo County counterparts from the PAC 7 in football a year ago.
That hasn’t been the case this season.
In 2009, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo went a combined 0-7 against Pioneer Valley, Righetti and St. Joseph, but they’re a pooled 8-1 facing the same trio this year.
Because of that turnaround, it will be the top four teams in the PAC 7 that meet at 7 tonight when Paso Robles (5-2, 3-0) visits Arroyo Grande (7-1, 3-1) and Atascadero (6-1, 2-1) plays at San Luis Obispo (4-3, 2-1).
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All four were represented in this week’s CIF-Southern Section Western Division poll, with Arroyo Grande ranked No. 4, Atascadero No. 5, Paso Robles No. 7 and San Luis Obispo in the others-receiving-votes category.
“There’s a good talent level throughout the league,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “It’s going to be tight the whole way, and I doubt there’s going to be a clear-cut champion until the last week.”
A primary reason for the seeming role-reversal thus far between the Santa Maria contingent and their neighbors to the north is obvious: experience.
“I don’t think it’s any long-term trend,” Goossen said, alluding to a cyclical fluctuation of talent that comes and goes at the prep level. “Next year, (the results) could be just the opposite.”
Added Atascadero coach Vic Cooper: “Each year’s different. It’s not like the NFL or even college where you’re carrying guys over (for several years).”
Righetti, for instance, graduated its starting quarterback, running back and best defensive player, league MVP Matt Miller, from last year’s 5-0 champion, not to mention seven additional all-PAC 7 honorees.
St. Joseph and Pioneer Valley, the PAC 7’s two newcomers, similarly lost a plethora of talent from last season’s Los Padres League champion and runner-up, respectively. The Knights graduated 12 all-LPL picks, while the Panthers lost 13.
San Luis Obispo County teams, on the other hand, fielded considerably younger squads across the board in 2009, and are now reaping the benefits.
Coming into this season, Paso Robles brought back 17 players who gained starting experience a year ago. One of them, senior quarterback Jacob Searcy, is second in the division in passing efficiency with a rating of 127, while another, junior Elias Stokes, ranks sixth in the state in all-purpose touchdowns among receivers, according to MaxPreps.com, with 16.
“But it’s not as if you can key on one thing,” Goossen said of the Bearcats.
Paso Robles running back Jesse Felgenhauer, another senior, leads the league with 842 rushing yards, and five all-league selections returned on defense for the Bearcats.
“They’re a complete team,” Goossen said.
Arroyo Grande, meanwhile, doesn’t have any underclassmen on its roster after having eight last year, two of whom — safety Seth Jacobs and kicker Garrett Owens — were on the varsity squad as freshmen in 2008 and have since generated a sizable share of online recruiting buzz.
Bolstered by a third-year starter at running back in Christian Crichton, the Eagles’ league-leading 1,873 team rushing yards rank No. 2 in the division.
Conversely, Atascadero returned the vast majority of its depth chart, as well, especially outside of its offensive line and linebacker corps.
Senior cornerback Troy Norris’ eight interceptions are tied for third in the state individually, while Atascadero’s 17 interceptions as a team are the sixth-highest total in California.
“I’ve heard people around the community say that this is one of the best defenses they’ve had,” San Luis Obispo coach David Kelley said of the Greyhounds. “They’ve got speed, they just fly around, and they’re very disciplined.”
San Luis Obispo’s improvement arguably has more to do with becoming further acquainted with a second-year triple-option offense than it does an overall percentage of players that returned in and of itself.
After a whole offseason getting acclimated with the system, the Tigers have already exceeded their overall win count from last season, and are averaging 14.6 more points and 116.4 more yards per game.
“Offensively, they’re night-and-day,” Cooper said. “It looks completely different than it did last year.
“(The triple option) makes you play assignment football. If you don’t align correctly and execute your specific assignments, they’re going to get you. It slows you down a bit, and you can’t fly to the ball the way you would, maybe, against a pro-style offense. It definitely makes you sit back and think a little bit.”
The league is guaranteed to send its top two teams to the Western Division playoffs. Four at-large berths will be dispersed throughout the six-league division.
Local coaches are largely optimistic that the PAC 7 will be awarded at least one of those at-large spots and are hopeful for a fourth.
Indeed, the PAC 7 is rated by CalPreps.com as the second-best member of the Western Division, behind only the Mission League, which is home to defending state bowl champion Serra of Gardena, which eliminated Nipomo in last year’s playoffs.
“I think the entire league is one of the better leagues in our division,” Kelley said.