Over the past two weeks, the Arroyo Grande High football team has turned heads throughout the Los Angeles area.
A win tonight would gain attention across the rest of the state and even the country. At 7 p.m., Arroyo Grande will take on Junipero Serra High in Gardena for the CIF-Southern Section Western Division championship.
“This is what everyone’s dream has been since we started here,” Eagles linebacker Aaron Ley said.
The game is one of just 13 remaining on the schedule for the 579-school section.
“It’s an honor to be able to play in this game,” Eagles safety Seth Jacobs said.
Serra (13-0), a defending state bowl champion that has won 28 straight, comes in ranked No. 22 in the country in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 and No. 24 in ESPN RISE’s national Fab 50.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “Obviously, we’ve had a great run at it, and now we have our most difficult challenge ahead of us.”
Rankings, seeds and other numbers of the like haven’t bothered Arroyo Grande (11-2) so far.
Two weeks ago, the Eagles, a wild-card entry after finishing third in the PAC 7, eliminated second-seeded Dominguez of Compton, 17-7. Last week, they took out the division’s No. 3 seed, Chaminade Prep of West Hills, 52-19.
“That’s really never been a focus of mine, whether we’re rated 1 or 20 or they’re rated 20 or 1,” Goossen said. “It’s the opponent and how you match up with that opponent.”
Chaminade may as well have been the second seed, anyway, as its only regular-season defeat came to top-seeded Serra, a Mission League rival, 35-21. That had projections pointing to an all-Mission League rematch for the championship. But the PAC 7, rated all season as the second-best of the Western Division’s six leagues, continued to represent well.
Arroyo Grande stayed poised after falling behind 9-0 in the first quarter to Chaminade, and also after trailing 16-14 at halftime, exploding for 38 straight points after the break to slam into its first divisional final since 2000.
“It’s amazing we get to experience this,” Arroyo Grande tight end Kelly Shepard said. “We haven’t been here in 10 years, so it’s just cool that we’re a part of this and that our year will be remembered.”
The last time the Eagles won a divisional title was in 1998.
Arroyo Grande originally was planning to go down with two rooter buses but was already up to four earlier this week, Goossen said.
“The whole town’s pumped about it,” Ley said.
Serra, which serves several surrounding communities of Gardena, has four of Rivals.com’s preseason California top 100 college prospects, in addition to several others close to that stature.
“This is probably the finest group of athletes I’ve ever seen on one high school team in my career,” Goossen said.
“That being said, it’s high school football. Anything’s possible. We’ll go into this with a great attitude. If we do the right things and we’re in it at the end, anything can happen.”
The Cavaliers, who were moved up from the Northwest Division this past offseason, have risen fast in recent years under 12th-year coach Scott Altenberg, whose first team there went 2-7-1.
Earlier this week, MaxPreps.com predicted Folsom vs. Serra as one of the five most likely upcoming state bowl-game matchups.
“They have a ton of athleticism all across the board,” Jacobs said of the Cavaliers. “We just have to account for it all and do the best we can to contain them.”
Indeed, Serra is looking to impress in its bid to return to a state bowl game.
Serra, which is renowned for its explosive speed and runs a high-flying passing offense, scored all of its points in the first half last week in a 41-23 win over Paso Robles. The 23 points the Bearcats put up represent the most an opponent has scored against the Cavaliers all season.
“You hope to prevent them from getting a big lead,” Goossen said. “That being said, it’s not really how you start — it’s how you finish games,” alluding to the massive turnaround in the Chaminade game.
Paso Robles, the outright PAC 7 champion, edged the Eagles 14-10 earlier this year in Arroyo Grande thanks to a goal-line stand in the final minute, culminating what longtime Central Coast coaches dubbed a historically great game.
Since that loss, which took Arroyo Grande out of league-title contention, the Eagles haven’t looked back. They beat arch-rival San Luis Obispo 42-6 in their regular-season finale before opening the playoffs with a 27-20 win at Rio Mesa in Oxnard.
“It says a lot about where we’ve come from,” Jacobs said of making it to the title game. “We’ve had some challenges come across during our league. It definitely says a lot about our team and how we fight hard, and we’re willing to sacrifice for the things we really want to do. In this case it’s a CIF championship.”
This type of postseason run has been in the works for a few years for Arroyo Grande, which was voted as a preseason favorite in the PAC 7 by the league’s coaches. The Eagles made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005 last year, with a team featuring eight sophomores, after a 2008 campaign in which they had five sophomores and two freshmen up on varsity.
“I’m so pleased that they have this opportunity,” Goossen said. “They’ve worked so hard. Starting in December, these kids have dedicated themselves in the weight room and given up a lot of time and energy to commit to each other and the team.
“It’s just great to see that they’re rewarded for all their hard work,” Goossen said.