The year 2009 is already guaranteed to have a special emphasis in any future Nipomo High football record books, photo albums or commemorative cases hung in the school’s hallways.
Last week, the Titans made their second playoff appearance in the seven-year varsity history of the program. Even more historically noteworthy, they beat Verbum Dei of Los Angeles 39-12 in the opening round of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs, claiming the school’s inaugural postseason victory.
But the Titans (8-3) can take those memories to another level at 7:30 tonight, when Serra of Gardena visits Nipomo for a quarterfinal matchup.
The Cavaliers (11-0), the division’s No. 2 seed, are ranked No. 21 in the state by CalPreps.com — ahead of De La Salle of Concord and Grant of Sacramento, even. Their primary threat offensively, 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior receiver Robert Woods, is rated as the No. 3 college football recruit in the nation by Rivals.com and has committed to USC.
“We’ve told (the players), ‘Yeah, (Woods) is going to USC, but we’re not playing USC,’ ” Nipomo coach Russ Edwards said. “They have to keep everything in perspective; they have to understand that they’re a high school football team just like we’re a high school football team.”
Woods, who has 48 catches for 735 yards and 10 touchdowns, isn’t Serra’s only star. Quarterback Conner Preston has completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 2,528 yards and 33 touchdowns with six interceptions. Two other Cavaliers receivers — Paul Richardson and Lindsey Anderson — also reportedly have strong interest from a slew of Pac-10, Mountain West and Western Athletic conference universities, as do cornerbacks Bene Benwikere and Devin Spann, running backs Domonique McGee and Shaquille Richard and linebacker Sean Bacon.
“They’re a really fast team,” said Nipomo senior receiver Kevin Britt, whose frame (6-1), speed (4.5 seconds in a 40-yard dash) and performance this year (49 catches for 767 yards and nine touchdowns) are comparable to those of Woods.Britt, who also has 66 tackles as a cornerback, couldn’t help but chuckle when asked to assess the magnitude of the opportunity to match up with Woods, as he’s likely to tonight.
“It gives me a challenge,” he said.
Quickness, experience key for Titans
Of course, the Titans aren’t without athletes of their own. In addition to Britt, their secondary will also figure to rely heavily upon the speed of fellow senior track star Akeem King.
Much of Serra’s offense is designed to quickly get the ball into the hands of its playmakers and get them out into space so they can be in a position to simply outrun the defense.
“They’re a big play-making team,” Nipomo senior linebacker Duane Hanna said. “We’ve got to try to force them to have a long drive and see how it goes after that.”
Last week, Nipomo’s defense — led by Hanna and his 121 tackles on the year — held Verbum Dei to minus-3 yards rushing and collected three sacks and a safety while getting out to a 39-0 lead.
While the Titans have been undersized compared to most of their opponents this year, they’ve been able to adapt to a variety of looks thanks to collective quickness and experience (as they returned 17 starters from a year ago).
Senior quarterback Josh Correia has passed for a San Luis Obispo County-best 1,688 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions on a 57.1 completion percentage. When he’s not looking deep to Britt or King, he’s able to go to senior running back Eric Penningroth, who has rushed for 1,473 yards and 11 scores on 213 carries while adding 29 catches for 415 yards and four more touchdowns.
“We just have to play our game,” Edwards said. “We have to maximize what we have.”
The only game in town
Not only will the game be the Titans’ first home playoff affair ever, but they’ll also be the only San Luis Obispo County team hosting one this week.
“It’s huge for us — the school and the community,” Titans offensive lineman Jake Ryan said.
It’s a reversal of recent seasons when, at this time of year, Nipomo players and coaches were left considering which other local teams’ playoff games they may want to attend.
“It’s kind of honoring,” Hanna said of Nipomo singularly earning the spotlight. “Every other team (in the area) was like, ‘You guys aren’t going to make it.’ Now we’re here.”
Earlier this week, Edwards remarked that other teams’ coaches were even asking him about getting tickets for a change.
“History’s in the making,” Britt said of Nipomo’s already-banner season. “To have other teams come to our stadium to watch us play, it’s big. It’s almost like a Super Bowl game for us.”