For most of its undefeated season, the Sierra Canyon offense has been the one that put on a show, averaging 52.6 points per game in its first 13 contests.
But in the Southern Section Mid-Valley Division final against San Dimas, the Trailblazers’ defense was the headliner.
Sierra Canyon scored early, just not often. But its defense made sure the Saints didn’t score at all in a 20-0 victory at San Dimas High on Friday, Dec. 4.
It was the second section title for the Trailblazers (14-0), who previously won the East Valley Division in 2011. That team went on to win the CIF Division IV state bowl game as well.
But Sierra Canyon has little time to enjoy the win. It now must get ready to travel to San Marino High and face the Southern Section Central Division champion Titans — also 14-0 — in the CIF state Small Schools Open Division regional on Saturday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like looking in a mirror,” Trailblazers Coach Jon Ellinghouse said, after watching film of the Titans. “They’re clicking on all cylinders. They are senior heavy, very experienced. They have a dynamic passing game with all kinds of passing plays. They can hit you in a lot of different ways.
“One thing I’ve told our team: you’ve won a CIF championship and no one can take that away from you. Now we have one more goal, and that’s going to Sacramento (for the state championship game). But to do so, we know we’d have to play some team that is undefeated or has a great reputation. So let’s see how we match up.”
It certainly figures to be tougher than it was against the Saints.
San Dimas (10-4) had previously won Mid-Valley Division titles in 2009 and 2013, and prides itself on playing old-school, smash-mouth football by employing a relentless running game with the occasional pass.
That concept has worked well for the Saints in the past, and even this year. But it looked exposed and flawed against the Trailblazers, who don’t mind playing physical football but also brought a level of speed on defense San Dimas could not overpower.
The Saints did rush 46 times for 224 yards, and had two drives lasting 12 and 17 plays. But most of their yardage accumulation was between the 20-yard lines. San Dimas never had the benefit of a short field, starting every drive from its 20-yard line or less, and the Saints had little luck trying to run wide of or around the Sierra Canyon defenders.
San Dimas’ deepest penetration into Trailblazer territory was the 19. Running backs Jarell Sykes (23 carries/108 yards) and Dominic Cortez (17 carries/79 yards) did what they could. But quarterback Joey Tamayo (8-14-1) only added 71 yards passing, allowing Sierra Canyon to clamp down on the Saints’ running game more and more as the game wore on.
“They hit us a couple of times with that double-reverse but we managed to adjust,” noted linebacker Christian Hernandez. “They’ve always had some tricky stuff in the backfield. But it was something we definitely prepared well for, and we managed to succeed.”
Nobody was more active on defense for the trailblazers than linebacker Patrick Gonzales, who racked up 20 solo tackles and four assist. He also had a sack, forced and recovered a fumble, and pretty much made life miserable for those assigned to block him.
“Their [plays] use a lot of pulling guards, and we’re taught to read the guards,” Gonzales said. “But it wasn’t just me. Our defensive line was making plays. They allowed me to make the plays I did. I believe in our defense, and we shut them out. It doesn’t happen often in a championship game.”
Sierra Canyon’s offense has been about having a balanced attack, and it did not change the script for San Dimas. Bobby Cole had 133 of the Trailblazers’ 183 rushing yards while quarterback Niko Harris (8-15-1) totaled 171 yards passing. His leading receiver, Eric Markes, caught three passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, but had to leave the game early in the third quarter with a knee injury. Kohl Hollinquest also had three receptions for 69 yards.
Still, Ellinghouse seemed to think the Trailblazers could have had a bigger lead.
“I thought San Dimas was very good, very well-coached. They do a good job of possessing the football and limiting your possessions. And offensively we made some key mistakes in some key spots,” Ellinghouse said.
“But you come out here in a championship game and your defense shuts out the other team…the field possession was a huge advantage for us. They did move the ball, but when push came to shove, our defense did a good job of gritting up and stopping them.”
The Trailblazers put up two touchdowns in the first quarter on a 30-yard pass from Harris to Markes, and a 1-yard run by Harris. But that’s all they could get against the Saints until late in the fourth quarter, when Cole scored from three yards out with 3:04 to play.
“Defensively they were better than we’re used to playing,” Cole said. “It’s a championship game, and we knew we weren’t just going to run over them. They’re very good, mainly a ‘run-stop’ defense, which became a problem for us. But we overcame it; the offensive line came together. I really have to give it to the o-line, across the board.”
“We just did our jobs and trusted each other,” Harris said. “Since we’re a family, it’s easy to trust each other and do our jobs. As long as we’ve got each other’s backs, we can go a long way. They were a good team, they were strong, so it was important that we just did what we needed to do.”
No matter how the rest of the post season plays out, one thing won’t change.
“Southern Section champion. It sounds amazing,” Harris said. “It’s what we’ve been working for. And we’re not done.”