One team was on the field and the other was on a bye, but both the Nipomo High football team and tonight’s opponent, Mission Prep, spent the past week getting back to basics.
For the Titans, their 52-15 win over Santa Maria served as a return to normalcy after they were less than a minute away from suffering an upset at the hands of Morro Bay in their Northern League Opener.
Nipomo coach Russ Edwards said his team “took Morro Bay a little lightly” following a nonleague schedule that included a one-point loss to Lompoc and a close defeat against Arroyo Grande.
The result was an offense that was held to two rushing yards on 31 carries and needed a 58-yard touchdown pass from Matt
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Albright to Nick Kimball on a fourth-and-long with less than a minute remaining to pull out a 15-14 victory.
“Morro Bay played us great, but we did not play up to our ability level,” said Edwards, whose team was a unanimous pick to win the newly formed Northern League. “They came out and smacked us in the mouth.
“It was a wakeup call for our group that just because we’re in league doesn’t mean things get easier.”
It was a call that, luckily for Nipomo, didn’t end in a loss, and the Titans (5-3, 2-0) enter tonight’s contest at Mission Prep (3-4, 0-1) with a chance to all but clinch a playoff spot with at least a one-game lead over the rest of the league.
“With it being a five-team league and a four-game league schedule, if we were to slip up and Mission Prep beats us … you get into all those three-way ties,” Edwards said. “You don’t want to end up there.”
The Royals are coming off a bye feeling well rested and with a growing confidence from their underclassmen, who spent the week in charge with the entire senior class on a religious retreat.
The week of practice “probably looked like one of our summer or preseason training camps,” Mission Prep coach Chad Henry said. “We had our underclassmen working on fundamentals, and we also took a look at who are going to be some of our leaders moving forward.”
Mission Prep fell to Templeton in a 41-34 shootout two weeks ago, and Henry said he came away from the loss pleased with the big-play ability his offense showed.
“We had more explosive plays in that game than we’d had all season,” the coach said. “We’ve done a good job controlling the ball, our Achilles heel has been putting the ball on the ground and penalties.”
Sophomore quarterback Bryce Fledderman threw two interceptions in the loss, but also found Carson Brown for two scores and hit Patrick Miller for a 54-yard TD strike as part of a 275-yard passing performance.
Miller, a junior who started at quarterback last year, finished with 163 yards on 14 catches and is the team’s leading receiver on the season with 27 catches, 357 yards and four scores.
“Patrick Miller is really coming along when you consider he’s at an entirely new position,” Henry said. “There was a bit of a learning curve there, but he’s put in the work and it’s showing.”
And although the Royals are 0-1 in league, they are just a win away from tying Morro Bay (1-1) and Templeton (1-1) in the race for the second automatic playoff berth.
“That’s one of the things we told our guys, ‘Hey, we’re right in the middle of this,’ ” Henry said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to bring it all together.”
The Royals will go up against an offense that boasts a 2,000-yard passer in Albright, a 700-yard rusher in Chris Owens, and five Titans with at least 300 receiving yards in Kimball (705), Harrison Labastida (417), Branden Hettenhouser (362), Owens (322) and Luke Nickelson (317).
“Nipomo has shown all year that it’s an offense that moves the ball,” Henry said. “They do a good job controlling tempo and spreading you out with their no-huddle offense.
“You can’t expect to stop them, but you do the best you can to limit big plays. Make the first tackle, and make them work.”
For as prolific as the offense has been, Edwards doesn’t have to look farther than that narrow win over Morro Bay to see the positive impact his players have made on the other side of the ball.
“We’re not in it and we don’t win against Morro Bay if our defense doesn’t play great,” said Edwards, whose defense is led by junior Terry Wambolt (107 tackles), and seniors Peyton Witcher (88 tackles) and Matt Sparks (59 tackles, and a team-high eight tackles for loss).
“We’re not in the discussion of possibly beating Arroyo Grande or Atascadero, or within a point of Lompoc if our defense isn’t as improved as it is.”