The stage was set for the Culver City High football team to be Serra’s doormat.
Theoretically, Culver City was the 16th seed entering the CIF-Southern Section Western Division playoffs. The Centaurs were not expected to test a Serra team that was the top seed and coming off back-to-back state bowl trips.
Serra was supposed to win.
That did not happen, however, and look at where the Centaurs are now.
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They’re just one more upset away from giving their school its first division title since beating Lompoc 14-7 in the Northwestern Division championship in 1978. Another rare chance comes Friday night, when underdog Culver City (10-3) goes up against Arroyo Grande (12-1) — also the division’s second seed — in the Western Division championship at Doug Hitchen Stadium.
“It’s exciting for us to be playing for a shot to win the CIF title,” said Culver City coach Jahmal Wright, a former Centaur in the mid-1990s. “For one, it was a goal we set in the beginning of the season. Two, since we haven’t made it to the finals in 33 years, it’s kind of a big deal around here. This is an opportunity that doesn’t come around often in Culver City.”
By now, the Centaurs are comfortable with their role. Once again, they’re the underdogs. Once again, they’re playing on another team’s field (as they did in a stunning 21-14 defeat of Serra, the division winners the past two years, Nov. 18). And once again, they have another opportunity to prove their worth.
“We just want everyone to know that just because we’re the 16th seed that we’re not the worst team in the playoffs,” said Culver City star receiver Alex Jackson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior who has received 10 scholarship offers, including five from Pac-12 Conference schools. “If anyone counts us out, they’ll be in for a big surprise.”
The Eagles say they’re not one of them, knowing all too well, via game film sessions, about Culver City’s weapons.
Besides Jackson, the Centaurs have other college prospects in senior linebacker Khalil Pettway, who has five FBS offers, and junior receiver Julius Wilson, who got an offer from Washington last month. Quarterback Lukas O’Connor, who’s responsible for a productive offensive attack with 3,002 yards and 32 touchdowns to 11 different receivers, is attracting interests from FCS schools.
And according to Rivals.com, wide receiver Kevin Porche became a Cal Poly commit Wednesday. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior has caught 45 passes for 488 yards and six TDs, as well as rushing 68 times for 448 yards and six TDs and throwing three TD passes.
“They’re probably the fastest club we’ve seen all year,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “They’re one of the most athletic clubs and on top of that, they’re well coached. There aren’t any holes in this team. They can throw the ball. They do a great job spreading it out, getting it to a lot of great receivers.”
Culver City and Arroyo Grande only met once before. That was in 1993, when Goossen was the defensive coordinator and the Eagles won 35-30 in the Division VII quarterfinals. Coach Wright and his offensive coordinator, Aki Wilson, played on that Culver City team.
So where did this year’s Culver City team come from? How can a team that finished third in the Ocean League create this crazy notion of winning the division title?
To answer those questions, you’d need to go back to the fifth, sixth and seventh games of the season, in which the Centaurs were without seven starters — six of them on offense — because of injuries. In that stretch, Culver City went 1-2. Nothing was going right. Was this bad luck?
“Back then, you could call it bad luck but looking back now, we wouldn’t want it to happen any other way,” said Jackson, who has caught 48 passes for 999 yards and 12 TDs. “It made us stronger as a team. It gave the other players an opportunity to step in and it brought more depth in that way.
“It helped us in the long run.”
Eventually, the Centaurs, who began the season with four straight wins before going on the 1-2 slide, got healthy and began winning again, finishing the league with a 3-2 record. It was just enough for an extended season.
After shocking Serra, the Centaurs handled PAC 7 runner-up Righetti 51-28 in the quarterfinals and got revenge on Santa Monica in the semifinals, rolling to a 37-6 victory after suffering a three-point Ocean League loss to the Vikings on Nov. 4.
The Culver City offense, led by quarterback O’Connor, has produced eye-popping numbers in the past two games, passing for 758 yards and nine touchdowns with one interception.
Don’t expect them to stop this kind of production against Arroyo Grande.
“We came out in the beginning of the season expecting to go undefeated, actually,” O’Connor said. “We had a lot of midseason injuries that took away a lot of depth. But in the playoffs, everyone was healthy and that worked for us. In the beginning of the playoffs, we expected nothing but to win.”
The Centaurs no longer can be considered a playoff doormat.