Several Mission Prep football players said this week that their 11-1 season has been the most fun they’ve had in their high school careers.
Things could get even sweeter if the Royals repeat their early season triumph over Rio Hondo Prep in the CIF-Southern Section Northeast Division title game tonight.
The Royals expect to face a hungry Rio Hondo team after beating the Kares 47-14 in the second game of both teams’ season Aug. 31.
Like the last battle, this one will take place at the Kares stadium in Arcadia at 7 p.m.
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Tonight’s contest marks the first time that Mission Prep has reached a CIF football division final.
Mission Prep also represents the last county football team standing after Atascadero bowed out last week with a semifinal loss to West Torrance.
Appropriately for a title game, Mission Prep finished as the top-ranked team in the division and Rio Hondo was No. 2. Both are 11-1.
“I’d say we caught them off guard a little bit last time,” Royals coach Chad Henry said. “They weren’t expecting us to come out with so much emotion and intensity. We’re not going to sneak up on them in this one. They’re going to be prepared.”
Henry recalled a team that showed a defeated look by the third quarter after a 27-7 first half.
That’s not a look that the Rio Hondo program is accustomed to, having won three championships in the past decade and nine in eight-man football before switching to 11-man in 2001.
“They had not been beaten like that and we really kind of shocked them and took the wind out of their sails,” Henry said. “It was the most surreal picture of all time. Their heads were all down.”
But Henry doesn’t expect to see that look again tonight — saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if they’re “seething” after hearing about that Aug. 31 loss for the past several weeks.
Star Royals quarterback Tyler Baty threw for 286 yards and four touchdowns in that game.
Running back Michael Cardwell had 145 rushing yards in that game and 1,301 yards for the season.
Rio Hondo star running back Nate Tayco carried the ball only five times for 14 yards in the Aug. 31 loss.
But that’s because he was playing both sides of the ball, according to his coach, and the Kares have stopped using him as a defensive back as of Oct. 12 so he could focus on offense.
Tayco has averaged 124 yards rushing per game and racked up 1,494 total yards and 25 touchdowns in an offense that produces about twice as many yards on the ground on average than through the air.
“We’ve taken him off D so he can focus on running, and he’s had some very good games,” Rio Hondo coach Ken Drain said. “Nate reads his blocks well. He’s quick and elusive.”
Another key player for the Kares is Colby Rivera — a 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback who has averaged 111 passing yards per game and tallied 19 total touchdowns against four interceptions.
Drain called Mission Prep’s team “really good” this year, noting Baty hurt them in the first game with his skill at quarterback.
“We’ll have to make some corrections and not give up the big plays that we allowed them last time,” Drain said. “They had some long passes and we’re going to try to contain those.”
Both teams have high-octane offenses that average more than 40 points per game.
Mission Prep is coming off a 54-26 win against a dangerous Salesian team manned by four athletes on the radar of Division I college programs. The Kares beat St. Monica 42-14 in the semifinals.
Neither team has had a close game in the playoffs nor have they had many close games throughout the season.
The Royals are led by a core group of seniors who have tallied gaudy numbers this season.
Baty ranks No. 12 in the Southern Section in all divisions with 2,766 passing yards. He’s expected to rank among the all-time CIF leaders in career and season touchdown passing marks. Baty has 90 career touchdown passes and 43 this season.
Receiver Joey Hall is No. 9 in receiving yards among Southern Section players with 1,214 yards and 22 receiving touchdowns.
This week, Royals players studiously watched game tape in Henry’s office. Their coach said the buzz around the game makes it exciting. His players will have no trouble bringing passion to the field.
“At the beginning of the year, we wrote down goals and two of them were to go undefeated and to win CIF,” linebacker Andrew DeSesa said.
“We barely missed the first (with a 16-13 loss to Bishop Diego), but we still have an opportunity at the more important of the two. LeBron James didn’t get the respect he deserved until he got his ring. We want that respect as well.”