All season the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers have heard from outsiders they were good enough to reach the Southern Section’s Mid-Valley Division championship game.
It looks like the prognosticators were right.
The undefeated Trailblazers (13-0) are the last local Valley football team with a chance to win a section title. But they have an excellent chance to do so this Friday, Dec. 4, when they face the San Dimas Saints at San Dimas High. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Sierra Canyon, which averages 52.6 points a game, is the bracket’s top seed. The Trailblazers have bludgeoned their first 13 opponents by an average of 37.2 points; their closest game on the scoreboard was a 48-34 victory against Paraclete of Lancaster on Nov. 6. The offense features junior quarterback Niko Harris (2,869 passing yards and 43 touchdowns against five interceptions), junior running back Joshua Cole (2,070 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns), and a pair of wide receivers in Kohl Hollinquest and Eric Markes, both seniors, who have combined for 81 receptions, 1,676 yards and 27 touchdowns.
“Absolutely, they are a phenomenal offensive team,” said San Dimas Coach Mark Holman, in discussing Sierra Canyon. “They’re just very well-balanced, very well-coached. Their kids play very hard.”
But don’t think of the 10-3 Saints as some quivering pushover ready to roll over before the Trailblazers.
Like Sierra Canyon, San Dimas is a potent offensive force, averaging 36.8 points. But the Saints do their damage on the ground with a burly offensive line and a group of hard-charging running backs.
The Saints have collectively run for 4,449 yards on 535 carries — an average of 8.33 yards per play — and scored 58 rushing touchdowns. Their leading runners are junior Jarell Sykes, who has 2,021 yards and 28 touchdowns, and senior Dominic Cortez with 1,004 yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Joey Tamayo (1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns against four interceptions) throws the ball only if he has to, or just enough to keep defenders honest. The receiving corps collectively has 1,191 yards and 11 touchdowns, but no individual wideout has more than 333 yards.
Even though San Dimas seems inclined to one style of play, Sierra Canyon Coach Jon Ellinghouse said the Saints have his team’s attention.
“The first thing that strikes me is they’re very well-coached. And I think they run some schemes that are very good,” Ellinghouse said. “You can see their discipline come across on film; they’re rarely out of position and they know their scheme well. And they execute it well.
“I wouldn’t bet against my team, but I have a lot of respect for them.”
At the 40th annual Southern Section press conference and luncheon this week, featuring the 26 teams playing for its 13 different division championships on Dec. 4-5, players from both teams expressed mutual esteem for each other, that the game would be special and the best teams had reached the final — making sure not to let any remark slip that could provide added motivation or evolve into a distraction.
When asked about facing Sierra Canyon, San Dimas linebacker Josiah Erickson, 17, was succinct. “They are a sound football team…they’re definitely a different kind of challenge.” Meanwhile, Sierra Canyon linebacker Christian Hernandez, 17, a senior, kept it close to the vest in describing the Saints. “They are very disciplined and play good football. We’re going to have to match that discipline, and play like we have all season. It should be a good game.”
Both teams agree they’ve worked hard and long to reach the final.
“Seeing all that pain from last year (of losing in the playoffs) has driven us to work harder,” said Markes, 18. “We’ve kept that in the back of our minds, to stay focused and keep working, and get what we didn’t get last year.” Noted Saints lineman Youssef Hanna, 17, senior, “We just do our thing. We practice hard, and where there’s a team that gives us a hard game we just pull through together and work as a team. We never give up or point our faces toward the ground.”
Both teams also have fairly recent championship pedigrees. San Dimas won Mid-Valley titles in 2009 and 2013. In 2011 Sierra Canyon won the East Valley Division title, and also the Division IV CIF State Bowl game.
What wasn’t said, at least out loud, was the kind of game it should be and the kind of game football is: a contest of wills.
San Dimas won’t disguise what it does. The Saints will run all game long if you let them or can’t stop them. Hollinquest, 17, who came to Southern California from Kansas City, said the style reminds him of back home.
“Out there they also run a lot of power football not too much passing,” he said. “Passing is a little bit of the game, but it’s mainly ‘man-to-man, who’s stronger, who’s gonna get it done’ football. That’s what they play at San Dimas. We have to toughen up and stick it out with them.”
Sierra Canyon can run and pass, and that could be its advantage. The Saints also have to be concerned, Holman said, about being sloppy and careless with the ball. The team has lost nine fumbles this season.
“It’s pretty simple: we have to protect the football and eliminate some penalties,” he said “If we had done that in the past, there might have been some games that might have gone differently….some games that left a bad taste. But I think that’s the reason we’ve been able to keep moving forward. Once they eliminated the mistakes, things kept rolling.”
Some teams will keep rolling on Friday to the state playoff. The Trailblazers are an obvious choice. The Saints won’t be a surprise if they triumph.
The kind of championship game football fans all hope to see.