Mission Prep’s football team has a new identity this year — transforming itself from a pass-heavy team to a bruising run squad led by Patrick Laird — who has rushed for more than 2,200 yards.
But the regular-season results have been similar for the Royals (8-2), who are the top-seeded team in the CIF-Southern Section Northeast Division playoffs.
Mission Prep will try to avenge last year’s 28-21 loss in the championship to Rio Hondo.
The Royals host Santa Clarita Christian tonight at 7:30 to open the playoffs.
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“We’ve been extremely battle-tested,” Mission Prep coach Chad Henry said. “We’ve won big, lost big, come from behind to win. We’ve had a little bit of everything. They’ve earned this.”
Henry said this year’s team doesn’t have as many talented athletes, but they have a mental fortitude that serves them well in tough games.
As an independent team, the Royals have played and beaten several ranked opponents from out of the county — including Rio Hondo (9-1), the division’s second-ranked squad, and Salesian (8-2), the division’s No. 3 seed.
Mission Prep’s two losses — a 42-0 rout to Christian (9-1) of El Cajon and a 39-14 defeat to Bishop Diego (8-2) came against quality opponents who figure to make deep playoff runs of their own in other divisions.
Mission Prep has leaned on its powerful senior, Laird, to shoulder much of the offensive load. Laird has at least 100 yards rushing in every game this season with a high of 343 against Farmersville. He has 21 rushing touchdowns.
The scouting report is out on him, but that doesn’t faze Laird.
“The coaches do a great job of coming up with schemes that find a way to open up some holes for me,” Laird said. “Teams will stack the box, but we do things to mix up our offense and I have great blocking.”
Laird also is known for his patience in waiting for blocking before he puts his head down and picks his spots to run.
Complementing Laird’s running game, 6-3 senior tight end Evan Talbert has hauled in 23 receptions this season, 12 for touchdowns.
“The connection I’ve had with (sophomore quarterback) Pat Miller has gotten better and better throughout the season,” Talbert said. “Our passing game helps mix it up so teams can’t just focus on (Laird).”
Two other local teams from the Los Padres League in the Western Division playoffs are Morro Bay (7-3, 5-1), which came in second in the LPL, and Nipomo (5-5, 4-2), which finished third.
Morro Bay, small in number and stature, surprised much of the league but its regular season success took a toll.
The Pirates lost standout quarterback Dan Beavers with a knee injury late in the season. The Pirates will face Buena, a much larger school from Ventura County, at 7:30 at home tonight.
Morro Bay will look to standout rusher Tristan Collins, who has gained 1,532 yards this season and 13 touchdowns.
Nipomo rebounded well from a 2-8 mark last year and fifth-place league finish to earn a playoff berth this season. They’ll face Ventura on the road at 7 p.m.
Junior quarterback Matt Albright has boosted the Titans offensive production from last year, throwing for 2,466 yards and 27 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He also has completed about 57 percent of his passes.
Three Nipomo wideouts — Nick Kimball, Harrison Labastida and Brandon Hettenhouser — have at least 500 yards receiving. Kimball leads the pack with 10 receiving touchdowns.
In 8-man football, Coast Union will seek to keep its stellar season going with a second-round matchup against Laguna Blanca at home at 7 p.m.
The Broncos (9-1) won 76-14 over Concordia last week, and they’ve scored at least 40 points in all but one game this season.
Their offense begins with quarterback Angel Avina, who has racked up 1,672 passing yards and 22 touchdowns and 921 rushing yards and 12 scores on the ground.