To start the first day of practice this week, the Arroyo Grande High football players and coaches did nothing unusual.
They did not rush to the football field to get a head start on their usual drills and assignments. The coaches didn’t have to give any “Remember the Titans”-type speeches.
Running backs checked their pads, quarterbacks warmed up with soft passes to teammates and a few others chatted with each other before practice began.
Besides a small contingent of the media, this practice seemed like nothing out of the ordinary.
But it was.
The Eagles were preparing for one of the most important moments of the school’s storied history that dates back to the late 1800s. After a business-as-usual week of practice, Arroyo Grande (12-1) aims for its fifth title with a win tonight over Culver City (10-3) in the CIF-Southern Section Western Division Championship at Doug Hitchen Stadium.
Kickoff is 7:30 p.m.
This is Arroyo Grande’s eighth time in a division final. They last won it in 1998, when they handled San Luis Obispo 31-14. Their past two title games — in 2000 and 2010 — ended in disappointment.
In last season’s title meeting, Arroyo Grande was humbled by a Serra team that coach Tom Goossen called “the JV team for USC.”
This season’s Serra team was knocked out of the playoffs by Culver City, theoretically the division’s lowest seed at 16th. The Centaurs, who last played and won in a division final 33 years ago, are looking for one more upset.
Arroyo Grande, the division’s second seed, is looking to fulfill expectations.
“It’s a relief for us to be able to accomplish this and get into this position,” Goossen said. “It’s never something you expect. It’s something you have to work for. It’s something you dream about, but you know there’s so many stumbling blocks and pitfalls that can happen.”
Arroyo Grande has successfully avoided most of those obstacles. In fact, its only blemish happened in the season opener it blew a 21-0 lead and lost 38-28 to Lompoc on Sept. 2. Lompoc is playing Cabrillo tonight for the Northwest Division title and a possible berth in the Division 3 state bowl game.
Since the loss to Lompoc, the Eagles have been unbeatable. In the past 12 games, the Eagles have won by a combined score of 476-197 and have beaten teams by at least two touchdowns or more 11 times. One of their toughest tests came last week, when they faced a determined Chaminade team with a shifty running back in Terrell Newby, who had four touchdowns and 242 yards on 42 carries. Arroyo Grande overcame an early 14-0 deficit and a 24-14 halftime hole with a 31-15 second-half advantage.
Another obstacle knocked down.
“Last year, we didn’t quite finish the job,” Eagles lineman Garrett Weinreich said. “This year, we have another chance.”
The 2010 storyline has been retold numerous times: The Eagles, as an at-large team, went on an expected run, upsetting team after team after team.
They made it all the way to the division championship game, where they faced one of the best teams in CIF history. Serra did not want to be part of Arroyo Grande’s Cinderella story and rolled to a 35-10 win Dec. 10, 2010 — enough to send the Cavaliers to their second consecutive state bowl.
That date also signified a new beginning.
“When we lost that game,” said Arroyo Grande quarterback Brent VanderVeen, who will join Weinreich at Oregon State, “our goal has been to get back into (the title game) and get a ring.”
The Eagles would return a good chunk of their stars — including Weinreich, VanderVeen, all-purpose player Garrett Owens and linebacker Seth Jacobs — for one more Western Division campaign. Those aren’t the only stars, though, as the likes of Gabe Deleon, Henry Adelman, Ciaran Costa and Brandon Berguia have been maintained leadership roles.
What’s been the key to their success? Keeping it simple, of course.
“The message is no different than in the first week,” said Goossen, who’s in his fifth year at the helm.
“If you change it up now, what message have you been telling them all along? This is the most important game on our schedule, like last week was the most important game on our schedule. That’s how you have to approach it.”