Matthew Suárez 11 a.m., Nov. 28
CIF Finals Previews
Monday, Dec. 5 at Qualcomm Stadium
(1) Poway (11-0-1) vs. (3) Vista (7-5) 7:30 p.m.
The championship nightcap features a pair of North County teams that arrived at the finals in contrasting fashion. Top-seeded Poway was tabbed as a preseason favorite and has gone through the season unbeaten, while defending champion Vista shook off an 0-4 start to carve an unlikely path back to the finals after being hit hard by graduation. Solid in all three phases of the game, Poway is one of the most balanced teams in the section. Defensive end Brian Guendling, linebacker Ryan Moreno and a swarming secondary that refers to itself as “sharks” lead the Titans defense and senior quarterback Gabriel Isaak leads a steady offensive unit. Of the four defending champions playing on Monday, no team had a more unlikely return run to Qualcomm Stadium than Vista. The Panthers returned only four starters from last year’s team – none on offense – and started the season with four straight losses before winning six of their last seven games. Running back Jacob Bedford carries the offensive load for Vista, whose playoff wins over Carlsbad and Eastlake have come by a combined five points. Poway appears primed for its first title since 2007, but the defending champs stand in the way.
(1) Helix (11-1) vs. (3) Oceanside (9-2-1) 4 p.m.
Helix and Oceanside define success in Division II – they have met in Qualcomm Stadium in seven of the past 10 seasons, and at least one of these teams has been a part of the last 13 section finals. The Pirates have won six of the seven title tilts with the Highlanders, and the last four as part of its stretch of seven consecutive section titles. Helix is loaded with talent and experience, and has been the most dominant team in the section since losing its opener to Eastlake. The Highlanders have won their last eight games by an average of 40 points, and in a 21-point semifinal victory played their first game without a running clock since September. Oceanside turned in its best performance of the season against La Costa Canyon in the semifinals, avenging a regular season loss to reach the finals and defend its unprecedented section title streak – something that didn’t seem likely just a few weeks ago. Helix is certainly good enough to end Oceanside’s run, but that was also the case last season when the Highlanders fell to the Pirates at home in the semifinals. Can Helix shake the Oceanside mystique? As if this game needed more intrigue, Helix sits atop Division II South in the Cal-Hi Sports state bowl rankings – meaning that a Highlanders victory likely sends them to Carson.
(1) Cathedral Catholic (11-1) vs. (3) Olympian (9-3) 1 p.m.
Top-seeded Cathedral Catholic is back at Qualcomm Stadium in pursuit of its fifth consecutive section title and the Dons will look for a familiar ending against Olympian, a familiar opponent. Cathedral Catholic and Olympian met in Chula Vista on Sept. 23, with the Dons rolling to a 31-0 victory. The Eagles have only lost once since then, including a landmark victory against South Bay power Eastlake. Cathedral Catholic relies on a rush-heavy offense and a scary defense that has shut out both playoff opponents and allowed a total of 22 points over the last nine games. The Dons defense has a host of stellar players, including defensive ends Casey Palid and Kyle Davis, and linebacker Russell Reeder. Olympian is making its first finals appearance in school history after moving to Division III before the season. The Eagles’ three losses have come to teams with a combined 30-3-1 record, and their playoff wins have come by an average of 37 points. Of all the teams playing on four days rest, both Cathedral Catholic and Olympian should be the most prepared because of their early season matchup.
(3) Valley Center (11-1) vs. (4) Santana (11-1) 10 a.m.
The first game of Championship Monday is the only game without a top-two seed, yet features the most combined wins of all the matchups. Valley Center is making its fifth straight finals appearance, and the Jaguars have won six section titles in the last seven seasons. The Jaguars are averaging 35.8 points per game with a run-first attack led by senior running back Garrett Fiehler (326 carries, 1,928 yards, 32 TDs) and are only allowing 13.9 points per game. Valley Center is riding an 11-game win streak into Qualcomm Stadium to face Santana, who is making its first finals appearance in school history. The one-loss Sultans are one of the season’s biggest surprises but their title hopes take a hit with the loss of star receiver Landon Lozoya, who suffered a lacerated kidney in the semifinals. Almost half of Santana quarterback Kyle Gasner’s completions have gone to Lozoya this season, and the senior will likely look to receiver Tyler Weiss or tight end T.D. Gross in his absence. On the ground, the Sultans are averaging 191 yards per game led by running back Spencer Love (751 yards, 15 TDs). Even without Lozoya, this early game has the makings of an offensive shootout.
Pictured: Brandon Lewis (4), Darrion Hancock and top-ranked Helix take on Oceanside in the Division II finals