Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
Mariners face Olympian in Division III semifinals on Thursday night
IMPERIAL BEACH – In its Double Wing offense, it’s no secret that when Mar Vista breaks the huddle the ensuing snap will likely be a running play. For Mariners’ opponents this season, stopping them has been more of a mystery.
“Defenses are about putting people in gaps to stop plays,” said Mar Vista head coach Brian Hay. “No defense has five people outside and five people inside to fill the spaces we create.”
By choosing to pass on the forward pass, Mar Vista is enjoying its finest season in school history. The 11-1 Mariners are averaging more than 400 rushing yards per game and one win away from the Division III finals.
“It feels really special to be part of history and part of a team that has made it this far,” said Mariners junior fullback/linebacker Kevin Lopez. “I feel honored to be on this team with great coaches and great teammates. We support each other and we care for each other – we’re like a family here.”
Hay started coaching at Mar Vista in 2007 and after a pair of two-win seasons decided to ditch the Mariners’ offense in favor of the Double Wing. Before the snap, the unconventional offense lines up seven linemen with minimal space in between, two inward facing tight ends on the line and a running back right behind the quarterback.
“We have really big kids and great running backs, but we’d only get a true quarterback that can throw the ball and read coverage rarely and it was always a struggle,” Hay said. “With this offense, we have a lot of speed with our running backs and it takes advantage of our tough kids.”
Mar Vista finished 5-6 in its first year running the Double Wing, and in 2009 the Mariners went 7-4 and captured the Metro South Bay League title – the school’s third league title since 1954. This season, Mar Vista repeated as league champs and did what no previous Mariners team had done in the postseason – win a game.
“Our first round win against Montgomery was huge,” Hay said. “Every week we play is a new milestone for the program.”
While Mar Vista’s 19-7 win over 10th-seeded Montgomery in the first round made history, the seventh-seeded Mariners’ 42-28 upset of second-seeded St. Augustine in the quarterfinals made waves throughout the section. In addition to advancing one round further in the postseason, beating the Saints earned Mar Vista some much-coveted respect.
“If we walked into Saints and got blown out, nobody would have respected us,” Hay said. “But I think it really opened up a lot of eyes when we beat them.”
Mar Vista trailed St. Augustine 14-0 in the first quarter but the Mariners roared back by halftime, taking a 28-21 lead late in the second quarter when junior defensive back Landon Clark intercepted a screen pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown. In the second half, the Mariners kept St. Augustine’s offense off the field and forced two critical turnovers to prevail with a surprising win.
“It wasn’t really a surprise for us,” Lopez said. “We practiced really hard, broke down a lot of film and coach really prepared us. We went our there and believed in ourselves.”
Though the Double Wing looks simplistic in highlights and Mar Vista’s playbook only has seven plays, the offense has produced results. The Mariners have averaged 31.7 points per game this season and rushed for 4,894 yards, currently the fourth-best season mark in section history.
“We just keep coming at you. Everybody on the offense is a blocker – all 10 men block for the man that’s running the ball,” Lopez said. “We like to play smashmouth football.”
Mar Vista has attempted 460 rushing plays this season and only 15 passes – six of which have come in its two playoff wins. Mariners senior quarterback Jordan Lertique wears No. 45 and usually serves as a lead blocker instead of a pocket passer.
“Every play I am coming in and blocking somebody,” Lopez said. “I love running the ball.”
Behind a line nicknamed “The Beef Train” by offensive coordinator Wes Charles and anchored by 300-plus lb. seniors Adrian Gurrerro, Victor Villaverde and Sean Sullivan, Mar Vista is averaging 10.6 yards per carry. Beneficiaries when the meat locomotive gets rolling include two 1,000-yard rushers – sophomore Jimmie Hill (1,538 yards) and junior Keevin Moore (1,111).
“There’s no defense that is designed to stop it,” Hay said. “The only things that stop it are us making mental mistakes on who we block or the opposing defense just having far superior people.”
Mar Vista faces third-seeded Olympian (8-3) on Thursday night in an all-South Bay Division III semifinal. The winner of the first ever meeting between the Mariners and Eagles will earn its first trip to Qualcomm Stadium.
“It’s very exciting,” Lopez said. “We worked really hard all season and the coaches told us if we worked hard and did what we were supposed to do we’ll get there – and we’re almost there.”
Pictured: Mar Vista running back Jimmie Hill (3) runs behind a wall of blockers in the Mariners’ Double Wing offense (Courtesy of Mariko Nakawatase)