Facing tough opponents is nothing new for the Paso Robles High football team.
The one the Bearcats will play tonight will likely be the toughest they’ve gone up against.
At 7 p.m., Paso Robles will take on Junipero Serra High in Gardena, in the CIF-Southern Section Western Division semifinals.
The Cavaliers (12-0) are ranked No. 24 in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 national rankings and No. 27 in ESPN RISE’s Fab 50, and their roster reads like a who’s-who of Los Angeles-area college recruits.
It has already been a memorable run for Paso Robles (10-2), which won its first outright league championship since 2005 and has made it to the semifinal stage for the first time since 2001.
“This group’s been saying all along it’s been a goal of theirs to win a league championship, and as seniors they accomplished that,” Bearcats coach Rich Schimke said, “and (saying) that they want to do something that kids haven’t done at our school for a while. And they’ve done that and got to the semis.
“They’re still hungry. It’s just a really good atmosphere right now at practice and in film (sessions). The school’s all excited.”
The Bearcats, the division’s fourth seed, opened the postseason defeating Oxnard 21-6 and Inglewood 35-21, both at home.
Paso Robles came into the season returning a vast majority of its starters from last year, including seven all-PAC 7 honorees, which created optimism from the start.
“It’s just been really fun and enjoyable,” Schimke said of the season to this point. “I said at the beginning of the season, if the pieces of the puzzle could come together, it’d be a really pretty picture at the end, and I’m really enjoying looking at it.”
Bearcats quarterback Jacob Searcy has completed 64.2 percent of his passes this year for 1,999 yards and 25 touchdowns with six interceptions. At running back, Jesse Felgenhauer has rushed for 1,380 yards and seven scores on 232 carries.
Elias Stokes is Paso Robles’ leading receiver with 59 catches for 925 yards and 17 TDs.
Stokes has also been dynamic taking direct snaps out of a wildcat-type of backfield, rushing for 249 yards and seven TDs on 35 carries, and is also averaging nearly 35 yards per kickoff return, with four of them going for scores.
Fellow receiver Aleksander Koch (36 catches for 554 yards and five TDs) and tight end Isaiah Jackson (23 catches for 285 yards and two TDs) are also reliable downfield threats for Searcy.
Nose tackle Bo Bonnheim has anchored the Bearcats’ defensive front all season, while Matt Sepulveda, David Katz and Hunter Gay have each consistently made an impact at linebacker.
Bearcats cornerback Jake Rodriguez has had interceptions in two of the past three weeks, while safety Scott Plescia has also routinely been a force.
Last year, Serra knocked Nipomo out of the Northwest Division playoffs, 48-18 in the quarterfinals, and then St. Joseph, 49-27 in the semifinals, before winning a state bowl-game title.
The Cavaliers moved on last week with a 40-7 win over Camarillo, their 27th victory in a row. They were up 24-0 after the first quarter.
“Their team speed was amazing,” Camarillo coach Dennis Riedmiller told the Ventura County Star. “It really doesn’t do it justice to just watch them on film. Serra is an incredibly fast team.”
Paso Robles’ secondary will have perhaps the most demanding task of all the Bearcats’ units tonight.
Serra quarterback Conner Preston, who has committed to SMU, has completed 66.2 percent of his passes for 3,025 yards and 33 touchdowns with six interceptions.
At his disposal are receivers George Farmer and Marqise Lee, who’ve combined to account for 2,457 receiving yards and 32 TD catches.
Rivals.com rates Farmer as the No. 4 college recruit nationally, regardless of position, while Lee isn’t far behind at No. 19. Both can write their own ticket to whatever Division I program they want.
The Cavaliers also feature Shaquille Richard at running back. He has 1,488 rushing yards and 17 TDs on 155 carries.
“All their receivers and running backs are (scouting) combine material,” Schimke said. “They’re all sub-4.5 (second) guys (in the 40-yard dash).”
On defense, Serra is led by pass rushing specialist Jason Gibson, Rivals’ fifth-best weakside end prospect nationally. He has 64 tackles and 11.5 sacks.
“Obviously, we understand the tasks in front of us,” Schimke said of Serra’s talent across the board, “but we look forward to that challenge.”