Dave Rice 6:30 p.m., March 24
CIF Finals Previews
Friday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 1 at Escondido High
(1) Mission Hills (10-2) vs. (2) Eastlake (9-3) Friday 7:35 p.m.
Section Titles Mission Hills – None / Eastlake – 1 (2009)
Friday’s championship nightcap features the top seeds in Division I, a North County-South Bay matchup between two teams tabbed as title contenders before the season started. A host of returning players made Mission Hills a preseason favorite in Division I and the Grizzlies haven’t disappointed, only losing to Mission Viejo and Oceanside while racing to the top seed. Junior quarterback Connor Wynn leads a Grizzlies’ offense full of weapons averaging 34 points per game. On defense, senior defensive back Devin Holiday (committed to Arizona), senior defensive end Kiel Robinson and junior linebacker Ricky Liuchan anchor a physical group has recorded four shutouts this season. Mission Hills seeks its first section title in school history, hoping the third finals appearance is the charm.
Eastlake boasts one of the fastest teams in the section, countering a lack of size with speed at every position. The Titans’ Wing-T offense has averaged 37 points per game, fueled in the backfield by senior burners Aaron Baltazar and Tavarus Green. While Eastlake spent most of the season simply outscoring opponents, its defense anchored by senior linebacker Blake Wilson has steadily improved down the stretch. Eastlake is playing its best football at the right time, and returns to the finals for the first time since winning its first ever section title in 2009.
(1) Oceanside (11-1) vs. (3) Poway (10-2) Saturday 7:35 p.m.
Section Titles Oceanside – 13 (2010) / Poway – 2 (2011)
The marquee matchup of championship weekend comes on Saturday night – a North County showdown that will crown a champion in Division II and determine who finishes the season as the best team in the section.
Oceanside has held the top spot in the rankings since the third week of the season, and the Pirates are the only team in the section without a loss to a San Diego opponent. Senior quarterback Tofi Paopao directs Oceanside’s spread attack that features playmaking juniors Thai Cottrell and T.K. Dodds. On defense, the Pirates have pitched five shutouts led by the senior duo of linebacker William Gulley and defensive back Ryshaud Keegan. Oceanside is the most complete team in the section, and is looking to get back on top after its streak of seven consecutive section titles was snapped last season.
Poway is the only defending section champion left in the postseason, and the Titans seek to add a Division II title to last year’s Division I crown. Poway eliminated undefeated Helix with a stellar defensive performance in the semifinals, a victory the Titans feel earned them long overdue respect. A pair of Division I-bound seniors make plays for Poway on both sides of the ball – explosive receiver/defensive back Derek Babiash (Arizona) and powerful linebacker/fullback Alec Moreno (Nevada). The Titans have a stout defense, a steady offense that leans on senior running back Nehemiah Gross and exceptional special teams.
This title game is a rematch of a regular season meeting on Sept. 21 that Oceanside won 23-13, a game the Pirates led 23-0 at halftime before the Titans rallied. Fewer mistakes by Poway should make this a closer game – a hard-hitting contest for section supremacy.
(3) Ramona (8-4) vs. (4) Lincoln (9-3) Saturday 3:05 p.m.
Section Titles Ramona – 1 (1973) / Lincoln – 7 (1986)
The dismissal of five-time defending champion Cathedral Catholic from the Division III playoffs left the bracket wide open, and the section finals matchup on Saturday afternoon reflects that. Ramona and Lincoln look to end long championship droughts in the only title game without a top two seed. Both teams have made huge strides since last season – in 2011 the Bulldogs and Hornets met in the first round of the playoffs with a combined 2-17-1 record.
Ramona became the highest remaining seed in the bottom half of the bracket after Cathedral Catholic’s dismissal, and the Bulldogs took advantage with two wins on their home field to make the second finals appearance in school history. Ramona has won four straight since a three-game losing streak that included losses to Poway and Oceanside, and won its two playoff games by an average of 35 points. On offense, the Bulldogs will look to establish their rushing attack fueled by junior running back Nathan Cherek (1,204 yards, 16 TDs).
Lincoln knocked off top-seeded and undefeated Olympian in the semifinals, avenging a regular season loss to the Eagles and making its second championship appearance in three seasons. The Hornets’ three losses have come to teams with a combined .917 winning percentage, and they boast a talented team led by senior twin brothers Tyree and Tyrell Robinson. The Oregon-bound Robinson twins make their impact felt on both sides of the ball – Tyree lines up at receiver and safety while Tyrell plays at defensive end and receiver – and have the talent to carry the Hornets to their first section title in two decades.
(1) St. Augustine (11-1) vs. (2) Madison (11-1) Saturday 10:35 a.m.
Section Titles St. Augustine – 3 (2006) / Madison – 1 (2010)
Saturday’s opener features the most combined wins of the championship matchups, as one-loss St. Augustine and Madison take aim at each other in Division IV. Both teams have talented offensive playmakers, and this matinee has the potential to be a high-scoring shootout.
St. Augustine chose to stay in Division IV this season rather than play up in Division III, and that move has come at the expense of the rest of section’s second smallest division. The top-seeded Saints ousted defending champion Valley Center in the semifinals and have shrugged off past postseason struggles in pursuit of their first section crown in six seasons. St. Augustine has a mix of experience and talent, but its most dangerous player might be its youngest – freshman running back Ejilah Preston has rushed for 1,439 yards and 13 touchdowns and is part of a first-year backfield tandem along with Francoise Sims II.
Madison is in the section finals for the third time in five seasons, propelled by the Arizona-bound senior playmaking duo of running back Pierre Cormier and receiver/defensive back Lee Walker. The Warhawks have won 10 straight since an early-season loss at Valhalla and their spread offense quarterbacked by sophomore Kareem Coles has scored 467 points – the fourth-highest total in the section. Madison’s high-flying offense often overshadows its defense led by senior linebacker Keoni Kanoa, a quick unit that is better than the numbers suggest.
(1) Santa Fe Christian (9-3) vs. (2) Francis Parker (8-4) Friday 3:35 p.m.
Section Titles Santa Fe Christian – 4 (2006) / Francis Parker – 2 (2009)
An all-Coastal League affair between the top seeds in Division V kicks off the championship slate on Friday afternoon. This game features an intriguing contrast of offensive styles and should play closer than the regular season meeting between the teams that Santa Fe Christian won 35-17 on Nov. 2. Santa Fe Christian returns to the finals for the second straight season aiming for a different result after falling short last season. The Eagles have won seven straight games since wrapping up a challenging preseason schedule, and swept through the Coastal League with an average margin of victory of 28 points. Senior quarterback Hunter Vaccaro leads Santa Fe Christian’s Wing-T attack that spreads the ball around – five players have rushed for at least 400 yards led by junior running back Tony Miro (976 yards, 14 TDs).
Francis Parker is making its fourth title game appearance in five seasons after eliminating defending champion Christian in the semifinals. On offense, the Lancers’ spread attack has put up 31 points per game and features a trio of playmakers – senior quarterback Gabe Harrington (1,922 yards, 22 TDs), senior receiver Hank Childs and junior running back Jesse Brookins (1,242 yards, 10 TDs). Francis Parker’s last defeat came against Santa Fe Christian in the last week of the regular season, and a second look at the Eagles’ misdirection offense could make things easier for the Lancers the second time around.
Pictured: Oceanside head coach John Carroll and senior quarterback Tofi Paopao