Central Coast high school football programs were buzzing this past offseason about how divisional realignment throughout the CIF-Southern Section might impact their future playoff outlooks.
Tonight, five San Luis Obispo County teams will get to take their first shots at those new-look Western Division and Northwest Division brackets.
In the Western Division, Paso Robles (8-2) will host Oxnard (8-2) at 7:30, and at 7 Atascadero (8-2) will play at home against Ventura (6-4) while Arroyo Grande (8-2) visits Rio Mesa of Oxnard (8-2).
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to get into the playoffs and test ourselves against other programs from other areas,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said.
In the Northwest Division, Morro Bay (5-5) will welcome Mary Star of San Pedro (4-6), and Templeton (6-4) will travel to take on Bishop Montgomery of Torrance (9-1), both at 7.
There were 11 total divisional championships won by Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo from 1993 to 2001, but the once-in-four-years realignments in 2002 and 2006 weren’t particularly kind to county teams.
In fact, the last time one of that quartet made it to the semifinals was in 2004.
But of the 12 different schools that ended PAC 7 county teams’ playoff runs over the past eight years, only four remain in the current Western Division. And of those four, just two — Beverly Hills and Camarillo — are in this year’s playoffs.
The Western Division, however, isn’t without a clear-cut favorite, even if it is a newcomer. That would be top-seeded Serra of Gardena (10-0), the Mission League champion, which features a handful of high-profile Division I recruits. After that, though, things seem to look a bit more wide-open than they have the past eight years.
“I definitely think we have the ability,” Goossen said of local teams’ chances. “There are some great teams ahead of us, Rio Mesa being paramount at this time, but I also feel like our league has put up some good numbers.”
To that end, the PAC 7 has been rated as the second-best of the Western Division’s six leagues all year.
Meanwhile, the Northwest Division is arguably even more of an unknown.
“We’re just eager to get going and play,” Templeton coach Dave Harper said. “We told the kids, it’s just like a new season, and you have an opportunity to do some big things and look back on it and be proud of what you accomplished.”
Only one school that made it past the first round of last year’s Northwest bracket, El Segundo, is in it again this year. Among those that were moved out of the division this past offseason were Oaks Christian of Westlake Village, which ended Morro Bay’s seasons in 2006 and 2008, and Serra, which eliminated Templeton in 2008 and Nipomo last year.
Oxnard features state’s top rusher
Just because the divisions are different doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be less difficult.
Maybe no first-round opponent goes to show that better than Oxnard, a Pacific View League at-large entry that will present the Bearcats with the challenge of facing one of the most productive running backs in the country.
Terrell Watson, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior for the Yellowjackets, leads the state and is fifth nationally, according to MaxPreps.com, with 2,728 rushing yards. Earlier this year, Watson rushed for 278 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries in a 34-27 win over San Luis Obispo, leaving Tigers coach David Kelley calling him “phenomenal.”
“He doesn’t come off the field much,” Paso Robles coach Rich Schimke said of Watson. “We’ve definitely got our work cut out.”
Curiously, Oxnard is actually ranked higher in the state by CalPreps.com than either of the other two PAC 7 opponents this week but ended up being an at-large squad because of a tiebreaker in its league.
But any talk of being stuck with arguably the toughest draw of the trio despite winning the PAC 7 championship isn’t an issue to Schimke.
“All the teams in the playoffs are worthy,” he said. “You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out who’s playing who and why, but to move on you’ve got to win anyway. So it doesn’t matter.”
The Bearcats are coming off a 34-7 win over Atascadero that secured their first outright league crown since 2005.
Meanwhile, the Greyhounds, who clinched the PAC 7’s second spot because of an 18-6 win over Arroyo Grande, are looking to put last week’s rivalry loss behind them against the Channel League runner-up.
Ventura finished the regular season with a 30-27 loss to Dos Pueblos, which opened the year with back-to-back losses to Righetti and San Luis Obispo, 7-3 and 27-20, respectively.
Arroyo Grande will be taking on the Pacific View champion in the Spartans, who started 2-4 overall but have won four straight.The Eagles routed San Luis Obispo 42-6 a week ago to convincingly state their case for one of the division’s four at-large spots.
Nordhoff enters as favorite in Northwest
Nordhoff of Ojai (10-0) earned the top seed in the Northwest Division after running the table in the Tri-Valley League. South Torrance (9-1), the Pioneer League champion, was seeded second, followed by Bishop Montgomery at third and Los Padres League winner Lompoc (7-3) at fourth.
Although three teams in the LPL finished with identical league records, Morro Bay earned the best playoff draw thanks to its wins over 4-2 counterparts Santa Ynez and Templeton.
Winning the final two games of the regular season paid off in a home game for Morro Bay, which is playing the third-place finisher from the Del Rey League.
Templeton also had a loss to Santa Ynez, 28-27 in double overtime, which ultimately served to bump the Eagles to fourth in the LPL standings.
“Sometimes we’re slow to get started, so we’re trying to re-emphasize the importance of starting quickly,” Harper said. “These teams (in the playoffs) were the best in their leagues, so there’s no time to wait around.”