High School Sports

Nipomo football team embraces underdog role ahead of playoff game

Nipomo High’s Joseph Santiago wraps up Templeton’s Nate Avery during a game Oct. 30.
Nipomo High’s Joseph Santiago wraps up Templeton’s Nate Avery during a game Oct. 30. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Nipomo High’s head football coach Tony Dodge is sporting a familiar look leading up to his team’s Friday night match up against Twentynine Palms: a handlebar mustache.

It’s a tradition that started last season.

“I’ve never really grown out my facial hair and somebody told me I should last year for No Shave November and the playoffs and I said ‘hell yeah I’ll do it,’ ” Dodge said at practice on Wednesday. “We won a (Southern Section) CIF championship with it and I didn’t shave it all the way so I’m doing it again.”

With Dodge as defensive coordinator last season, the Titans plowed through the playoffs to win the first CIF Southern Section football title in school history.

While the facial hair is the same, the team has a differnt look. Instead of an explosive, pass-first offense, Nipomo depends on defense and a running game to get wins, just as they did in last Friday’s 51-6 first round win over Rio Hondo Prep when the team gained 466 yards on the ground.

“Defense wins championships, and these guys are taking that to heart,” Dodge said.

But there are similarities. Just like last season, Nipomo will face the winner of the De Anza League in the second round. Last season, Nipomo beat high-scoring league champ Shadow Hills 56-20, ending its eight-game win streak. This year, Nipomo will face a De Anza League champion that can fill up the scoreboard. The Wildcats are averaging 43 points per game this season.

But Dodge believes Twentynine Palms’ zone-read, double-back offense hasn’t seen a tough defense like Nipomo’s yet.

“We have to stop the quarterback-running back run game and force them to throw. They have those ungodly stats, but if you look at the quality of their opponents, it’s a different story,” Dodge said. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t hold them to 20 points or less.”

Nipomo’s defense, led by Northern League sack leader David Leon and tackle machine Terry Wambolt, has carried the team all season, holding high-powered offenses like Lompoc and Arroyo Grande in check in losses.

“Having a great defense takes a lot of stress off the offense,” said Nipomo quarterback Gavin Hall, who had three interceptions and two touchdowns in last week’s win. “It’s really great to know that the other side of the ball is doing everything they can.”

“I think that our offense needs to kick it up a notch and return the favor.”

While Nipomo’s defense has been solid throughout the season, the offense has struggled at times. In the Titans’ four losses this season, they have averaged just over 7 points per game. This week, Hall and the offense will face pressure in more ways than one.

“This week will be big for him because this team brings six or seven guys every play,” Dodge said of Twentynine Palms’ blitz packages. “They go man-to-man defense across the board and say beat us.”

“They just overwhelm teams with their pressure and nobody can do anything.”

Hall will need to throw to loosen up the defense, but the Wildcats’ defense can expect a heavy dose of Nipomo running back Antonio Navarro. The senior running back carried the ball 25 times for 287 yards and four touchdowns last week, and he has rushed for over 120 yards in each of the past four games.

“For me, this is a big game,” Navarro said. “We played Rio Hondo, but they aren’t as good as Twentynine Palms. So for me, I have to step it up. I have to reduce my mistakes and I have to get my blocking assignments.”

Navarro will shoulder most of the load on Friday night, while J.J. Ramirez, who has split carries with Navarro this season and ran for 142 yards last week, fills in for the injured Isaac Bausley at free safety.

Nipomo feels their strength of schedule, which is much tougher than that of No. 2 seed Twentynine Palms, will begin to pay off this week.

“We tend to play better with our backs against the wall when people consider us an underdog, like they will this week,” Dodge said. “We tend to step up and rise to the occasion and I expect us to do the same thing.”

  • If Nipomo wins on Friday, it will host the winner of the game between Linfield Christian and Valley Christian by virtue of a coin flip
  • Offensive lineman Noah Gibbons, who suffered a knee injury, is questionable
  • Hall says bad mechanics, not bad decisions, are to blame for recent interceptions