In any given year, the high school football rivalries between Atascadero and Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo draw enough interest on their own.
When a league title and CIF-Southern Section playoff positioning are also thrown into the mix, the games can become even more meaningful.
That will be the case at 7 tonight when Paso Robles (7-2, 5-0 PAC 7) plays at Atascadero (8-1, 4-1) and Arroyo Grande (7-2, 3-2) travels to San Luis Obispo (4-5, 2-3) in each team’s regular-season finale.
The Bearcats and Greyhounds have already clinched the league’s two guaranteed Western Division playoff berths. A win by Paso Robles would secure an outright PAC 7 title and the league’s No. 1 postseason seed. Atascadero, meanwhile, would also grab the top seed with a win, which would seize a share of the league championship.
“There should be quite an atmosphere,” Greyhounds coach Vic Cooper said.
Playoff draws will be announced by the Southern Section on Sunday morning.
“You don’t want to get too high or too amped-up,” Bearcats coach Rich Schimke said of approaching the arch-rivalry game. “You try to keep (the players) focused on what the task is, the next play.
“We’ve got a fine team, they’ve got a fine team, and it’s going to be a fine game. It’s going to be a great environment and a game that makes the North County proud.”
Both Paso Robles and Atascadero rank among the Western Division and Southern Section leaders in several team and individual categories.
Bearcats quarterback Jacob Searcy’s passer rating of 127 ranks second in the division, according to MaxPreps.com, while receiver Elias Stokes’ 20 all-purpose touchdowns (14 receiving, three rushing and three on kickoff returns) are tied for second in the section at his position.
On defense, thanks in large part to five all-league honorees who returned from 2009, Paso Robles hasn’t allowed more than 10 points in a game since Oct. 15.
“I think it’s one of the best teams Rich has had in quite a while,” Cooper said. “They’re extremely balanced and experienced.”
The Greyhounds have rolled nearly all season in their own right, with the only setback being a 3-0 loss to Righetti on Oct. 8.
Atascadero ranks No. 1 in the division in points allowed, with 76. The Greyhounds’ 17 interceptions as a team are tied for No. 1 in the division, led by cornerback Troy Norris’ eight, which are tied for third in the section individually.
On offense, the Greyhounds feature a second-year starter at quarterback in Jesse Whitten (who has a 13-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio), and are collectively rushing for 248 yards on 39 carries per game. Tight end Weston Walker and receiver Logan Sprouse are each averaging more than 27 yards per catch.
“They’re physical up front, and they like to run the ball to set up the pass,” Schimke said. “Defensively, they’re very athletic and they fly to the ball.”
Several players on each team were involved in key plays in last year’s 14-13 Paso Robles win. In that one, Searcy hit Stokes for a 56-yard touchdown pass but immediately afterward, Norris returned a kickoff 89 yards for a score.
The Greyhounds are coming off a 54-0 win at Pioneer Valley, while the Bearcats defeated Righetti 31-6. Each team had to rely on backups at integral positions this past week after respective starters, running back Jesse Felgenhauer for Paso Robles and defensive back and kicker Luke Allen for Atascadero, left those games with injuries.
Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen and San Luis Obispo coach David Kelley are both largely confident the winner of their game will be awarded one of the six-league division’s four at-large postseason entries.
Although the Eagles could end the night having equaled the Greyhounds’ league record, their 18-6 loss to Atascadero earlier this year would serve as a head-to-head tiebreaker in that context. CalPreps.com ranks the league as the second-best in the Western Division, however, encouraging local coaches with regard to their at-large chances.
“As far as I know, we have a good shot to get in if we win,” Goossen said.
Kelley had a similar assessment: “I would hope that we (could) say, ‘We win, we’re in.’ If not, I would be very discouraged with the system.”
The Eagles are coming off a bye that came on the heels of a 14-10 loss to Paso Robles in which they nearly scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute, only to see the drive came up short inside the 10-yard line.
Arroyo Grande has two running backs, Christian Crichton and Ciaran Costa, averaging nearly seven yards per carry, while a trio of receivers — L.T. Johnson, Jordan Morrison and Garrett Owens — all have between 14 and 21 catches.
“They’re huge up front,” Kelley said, “and they’ve got some great skill perimeter guys.”
San Luis Obispo was shut out 35-0 a week ago at St. Joseph. Prior to that, though, the Tigers hadn’t lost back-to-back all year, and their defeats had come by just 8.5 points per game.
“It’s an anomaly in my mind,” Kelley said of the shutout.
Kelley was also quick to point out that despite its 2-4 standing in the PAC 7, St. Joseph has been competitive with everyone. Indeed, the Knights’ league defeats have come by just 7.5 points per game.
“If people were looking at (St. Joseph’s) record,” Kelley said, “they were looking at the wrong thing. They should’ve been watching tape.”
Even in the loss to the Knights, the Tigers had 327 yards of total offense. Their triple-option backfield, an antiquated scheme that poses challenges in preparation because of its rarity, has led to marked improvement over the long haul of this season.
“They have a difficult offense to simulate (in practice) that presents assignment difficulties,” Goossen said.