It was 2004 the last time the end-of-the-year football showdown between Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo high schools had quite this much mutually at stake between the two programs.
The Eagles (8-1, 5-0), who’re ranked No. 2 in the Western Division of the CIF-Southern Section, clinched at least a share of the PAC 7 championship two weeks ago and will look to put the finishing touches on an unbeaten league season when they host the second-place Tigers (7-2, 4-1) at 7 tonight.
If San Luis Obispo, which is ranked No. 7 in the division, can pull off an upset, it’d give the Tigers a share of their first league crown since 2002.
“It’s a great game with a great atmosphere,” Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said. “It’s what high school sports are all about. Any time you’re playing for a league championship, it’s an exciting time and it’s a time that is to be cherished.”
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Or as San Luis Obispo coach David Kelley said, “This is what we work so hard for when we start in January. To be able to play Arroyo Grande High School in the last week of the regular season to win a league championship is what they’ve been dreaming about since they were playing youth football.
“To be 4-1 in league and to be able to compete for a league championship — I don’t know how much more you could ask for than this situation.”
A win would secure the league’s No. 1 playoff spot and, in theory, a more advantageous seed.
The PAC 7 has only two guaranteed Western Division playoff berths, although a third at-large selection is extremely likely, and a fourth could be awarded, as well, although one wasn’t a year ago. The division’s 16-team bracket will include four at-large spots to be distributed throughout the six-league division.
While the Tigers haven’t clinched one of the league’s two automatic bids (their only loss came to Righetti, which finish 4-2 with a win over Pioneer Valley on Friday and thus takes second place), the worst they can finish in the standings is third.
If San Luis Obispo, Righetti and Atascadero all finish 4-2 in league play, a random preseason tiebreaking number draw would be invoked. San Luis Obispo had the best preseason draw, followed by Righetti, with Atascadero then having the most-unlucky draw of the trio, meaning the Greyhounds would technically be slotted fourth in the league standings.
The Eagles are coming off a bye week that followed a 35-17 win at Paso Robles, a game in which they rallied from a 14-3 first-quarter deficit.
They haven’t tasted defeat since a season-opening 38-28 home loss to Lompoc, during which they relinquished a 21-0 first-half lead.
“On film, bar none, they are the best team we’ve seen across the board,” Kelley said.
While the Eagles have gotten plenty of attention throughout the region from having four highly publicized FBS recruits — quarterback Brent VanderVeen and offensive lineman Garrett Weinreich (both of whom have verbally committed to Oregon State), kicker Garrett Owens (Air Force) and outside linebacker Seth Jacobs — Kelley was just as complimentary of the rest of their depth chart.
“Overall they’re a good team,” he said. “All their role players know their jobs and do their jobs, and that makes their stars shine even brighter.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, are one week removed from a 36-29 home win over St. Joseph in which receiver Trevor McGuire caught a game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass with 37 seconds remaining. The wild finish came after San Luis Obispo had seen the Knights come back from a 29-14 hole to tie it late.
In the Tigers’ 19-12 loss to the Warriors on Oct. 14, they appeared to have Righetti on the ropes, leading 12-11 with Righetti facing a fourth-and-6, 30 yards from the end zone, with about two minutes left in regulation. Righetti used a 27-yard pass to pick up the first down and then punched in the go-ahead TD with 1:37 left.
San Luis Obispo’s only other loss, 45-40 at Kingsburg in the season opener Sept. 2, was similarly close. In that one, the Tigers took the lead with 1:53 remaining before giving up the game-winning score nearly a minute later.
“They’re literally two plays away from being 9-0,” Goossen said. “So when we talk about San Luis Obispo, we talk about a high-quality team. Their success doesn’t surprise me. When you watch the film, they’re a tremendously talented team.”
In the other PAC 7 regular-season finale tonight, also at 7, Atascadero (6-3, 3-2) will visit Paso Robles (2-6, 1-4).
Atascadero shut out Pioneer Valley 14-0 a week ago, while Paso Robles, which lost 34-0 at Righetti last week, will be looking to go out on a positive note.
The Bearcats have won the past two meetings between the two North County rivals, 14-13 in 2009 and 34-7 a year ago during a league championship run.
This year’s game will again feature a battle of two of the area’s most dynamic, versatile downfield threats, Atascadero’s Logan Sprouse and Paso Robles’ Elias Stokes, each of whom are seniors and are also entrusted with punting and return duties on special teams.
Sprouse has caught 30 passes for 574 yards and eight TDs, and has picked off a league-high six passes on defense.
Stokes has filled in at a variety of roles this season for the Bearcats, and has accounted for 678 all-purpose yards (plus 350 passing) and six TDs while also seeing time in the secondary. The Greyhounds’ defense, which prior to last week’s win over the Panthers had another shutout of a league opponent, 21-0 over Righetti on Oct. 7, features one of the region’s leading tacklers in senior Adam Woodhull.
Woodhull’s 137 tackles rank second in the Southern Section at the 11-man level, according to MaxPreps.com, trailing only the 140 of Nipomo senior J.T. Wells.