The stage was set Friday night in Arroyo Grande for a showdown between two of the best high school players in the area.
On one side was 6-foot, 220-pound Paso Robles running back Christian Erickson, the PAC 5’s leading rusher. On the other side was Arroyo Grande 6-foot-1, 220-pound middle linebacker Sam Ness, the most prolific tackler in the PAC 5.
When Paso Robles had the ball at the 50-yard line on 4th-and-2, and everyone within 10 miles of Doug Hitchen Stadium thought that Erickson was getting the ball, including Ness. But instead the ball quarterback Justin Davis kept it.
“I just read the play and our guys went where they needed to go and I was just there,” Ness said.
Davis tried to cut the ball to the left, but right into Ness. Ness sent Davis flying back for a 2-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
“It was nice,” Ness said after the game with a sly smile.
Ness had a couple of run ins with Erickson too including a big hit in the second quarter that sent the big running back to the ground quickly. After the hit, Ness looked down at Erickson for just a second; long enough to send a message, but short enough to avoid a flag or the ire of Arroyo Grande head coach Tom Goossen. It was a hit with some history behind it. Ness finished the game with five tackles, the tackle for a loss on Davis and a sack in the 42-0 win over Paso Robles. It was the first time all season that Erickson (16 carries, 90 yards) had been held under 100 yards.
Ness has anchored an Arroyo Grande defense that shut out its past two opponents.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed with Sam in the last three weeks has been his ability to just go hard,” Goossen said. “He is playing downhill and attacking.”
It didn’t come by accident. Ness said the coaches have drilled into his head that it’s ok to make mistakes, just as long as you play fast. Since then, he’s been flying to the ball like a runaway, well, train.
“I’m able to read the play quickly,” Ness said, “But now that I’m attacking I’m having success.”
On the season, Ness now has 82 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
“Our [defensive] line is getting pressure and everyone is filling their responsibilities,” Ness said of the defense that is giving up 12 points per game. “When that happens, we can be the best defense around and it’s showing right now.”
Anchoring the line in front of Ness is senior defensive lineman Cole Cunningham.
“They finally ran to his side,” Ness said. “They don’t usually do that, so he was finally able to get some tackles.”
Cunningham finished Friday’s game with 11 tackles, but the fact they were against Paso Robles, the team that ended Arroyo Grande’s playoff hopes last season, made them that much better, he said.
“It was so much fun to get revenge,” Cunningham said. “Last year was just so heartbreaking. They’re a great squad still, but they were really good last year.”
Along with holding Erickson in check, the Arroyo Grande defensive backfield again terrorized Davis on Friday after forcing seven interceptions in two games last season. Benny Willkomm and Landon Carter each had picks.
“I haven’t seen two shutouts in a row in I don’t know when,” said Goossen, who has been coaching at Arroyo Grande for more than 20 years.
Ness and the defense are on track to be one of the best defenses Arroyo Grande has seen in a long time. And if the Eagles can stop Erickson, they can stop anyone.
“I think that we just have such good chemistry right now with all of our defense right now,” Cunningham said. “We’re just rolling.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Christian Erickson carried the ball on 4th-and-2, not Justin Davis.