For the Mission Prep football team, tonight’s CIF-Southern Section Northeast Division semifinal matchup against Salesian marks the furthest the program has advanced in 50 years.
But for coach Chad Henry, making history is the last thing that he, and the Royals (10-1), are thinking about. His team is focused on one thing — winning tonight’s game and earning a shot at a CIF-Southern Section title.
“If you get caught up in that, you start to lose focus,” Henry said.
Mission Prep looks like anything but a team without focus.
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The Royals shook off a heartbreaking 16-13 loss to Bishop Diego in their season finale by opening the playoffs with two huge wins.
After defeating Frazier Mountain 41-8 in the opening round behind quarterback Tyler Baty, who threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns, Mission Prep traveled to La Cañada, where it cruised past Flintridge Prep in a 49-14 quarterfinal victory.
“For this week, our main thing is carrying the momentum from last week,” Henry said. “Being in a semifinal, we’re extremely excited for it — the kids are psyched about it — but we’ve approached this week like we have every other week.”
Salesian (11-1) is a team that is strikingly similar to the Royals.
The Mustangs’ only loss came to an out-of-division opponent in a 48-34 loss to Los Altos in their second game of the season, and the team features an explosive offense backed by a stingy defense.
In Salesian’s past six games, it has outscored opponents 332-17, including a 74-7 win over Capistrano Valley Christian in the opening round of the playoffs and a 35-0 victory over Bishop in the quarterfinals.
The Mustangs are led by dual-threat quarterback Jihad Vercher, who has thrown for 2,128 yards and 21 touchdowns and has run for a team-high 901 yards and 15 touchdowns on 104 carries.
“For us, we have to be able to control the run and limit any big plays and passing opportunities,” Henry said. “We need to contain (Vercher) and keep him in the pocket. In general, it’s probably best to keep them in third-and-long type situations.”
Vercher isn’t the only playmaker for Salesian.
Adrian Escobar has 104 carries for 694 yards and seven touchdowns, and Rodney Carr has 51 carries for 507 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receivers Marquis Ware and Jermaine Kelly have combined for just under 1,000 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns.
“I think we’ve done a good job all year of not allowing the big play,” Henry said. “But it’s going to have to take extra effort this week. It’s going to take 11 guys.”
Mission Prep is going to have to counter with an equally balanced offense, whether it’s through Baty, who has 2,580 yards passing and 38 touchdowns or running backs Michael Cardwell, who has 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns, and Patrick Laird, who has 694 yards and 10 touchdowns, including 178 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries last week.
“We’ve had the luxury of being a balanced team this year,” Henry said. “We’re gonna take what people give us. We’ve had to make some corrections and some adjustments up front, but that’s high school football.
“The last couple weeks were the toughest for us in a while coming off the loss to Bishop Diego. But we put everything together emotionally finally. We have a huge challenge in front of us.”