Just like last year, the Mission Prep football team opened the CIF-Central Section Division V playoffs with a win. And just like last year, Corcoran awaits.
The Royals hope this time the trip has a different result. In 2008, their season came to an end in a 49-10 loss at Corcoran.
“Last year, we came into Corcoran just wide-eyed,” Mission Prep senior quarterback and defensive back Kevin Laird said after the eighth-seeded Royals’ 13-8 win over ninth-seeded Bakersfield Christian last week. “We got manhandled right from the get-go. We’ve got to go there and play just like we did (against Bakersfield Christian), and be physical.”
Last season’s installment was a divisional semifinal, as both teams opened with byes. This year’s meeting at 7 tonight is a quarterfinal matchup. Top-seeded Corcoran (8-2) had a bye to open the playoffs again.
“It was a tough, physical game for us,” Mission Prep coach Brady Lock said of last year’s contest. “The returners we have who were there last year — they know that.”
Matters snowballed in the third quarter of that game, as the Panthers scored 21 points in just a minute and 49 seconds during a night when the Royals committed six turnovers.
Corcoran’s defense has again proven capable of exacting that kind of havoc, entering tonight with 22 sacks and 38 forced turnovers.
“They’ve got some very talented athletes and an aggressive defense that loves to hit,” Lock said. “There’s a very slight margin of error for anything that you do.”
In last week’s win, the Royals (8-3) — playing against a considerably larger outfit in Bakersfield Christian — successfully executed a number of trick plays that widened the playing field, including a fake punt and a hook-and-ladder.
They also got Laird, their best open-field threat, out into the clear by rolling him out and occasionally splitting him out wide at receiver (where he was an all-San Luis Obispo County selection a year ago).
The 6-foot-3, 183-pound Laird has accounted for 800 passing yards, 1,110 rushing yards and 282 receiving yards this season. He has 25 total touchdowns and leads the Central Section with 10 interceptions from his safety spot.
But Laird hasn’t been the Royals’ only force on an opportunistic defense, as nose tackle Joey Miller and others have freed up a fleet-of-foot linebacker corps of Sean Robinson, Clay Mead, John Sansone and Matt Howell to consistently make plays.
Mission Prep has won six straight after a slightly tumultuous start to the season, as its three losses came to Rio Hondo, Linfield Christian and Chadwick — Southern Section Northeast Division small-school powers who’ve combined to go 32-1.
“We threw them to the wolves,” Lock said of the arduous nonleague schedule. “We put them in some tough situations, and the kids dealt with that and just responded.”
Causing even more worry about the Royals’ start was the fact that they were playing without Dylan Morrow, an all-county quarterback who graduated after accounting for 53 total touchdowns last year.
“So many people said, ‘What’re you going to do without Dylan? That was a special team (last year),’” Lock said. “Yeah, it was. But the kids who were coming back this year picked up the sword and said, ‘We’re going to be OK, too.’ ”
After Laird took over calling signals full-time mid-season, Mission Prep marched through East Sierra League play 5-0, capped with a 49-26 regular-season finale victory over Orange Cove, which last year won the league championship by edging Mission Prep 37-34, also in the regular-season finale.
Thus, playing after Thanksgiving for the second year in a row, Lock said, is icing on the cake.
“We got our goal of winning a league championship,” he said. “Winning a game in the playoffs has been even nicer.”