It’s fair to say Sierra Canyon covered a lot of ground to reach the Southern Section’s Division IV title game.
The 2016 season began with a road game in Orem, Utah. The Trailblazers have also been visitors at Palisades High of Pacific, Buena High in Ventura, Mission Prep High in San Luis Obispo, Redondo Union High in Redondo Beach and, most recently Charter Oak High in Covina.
“I think we’d already traveled 2,000 miles before we had a home game,” Coach Jon Ellinghouse said.
No one has gotten them yet in 13 previous games. And the Trailblazers (13-0), the division’s top seed, are appearing in their fourth Southern Section championship game since 2010, and seeking their third section championship.They won the Mid-Valley Division title last year, and the East Valley Division (along with the CIF Division IV state bowl game) in 2011.
They will host Corona del Mar (CDM) of Newport Beach on Friday, Dec. 2, at Granada Hills High at 7 p.m.
Taking the long and winding road to Championship Week has not felt like a liability to Sierra Canyon — and not just because they are undefeated.
“Our kids had experienced it, gotten used to traveling,” Ellinghouse said. “And when you get into the playoffs, especially with the new divisions the way they are, there’s no geographic consideration at all. So you’re gonna travel. And [the schedule] definitely prepared our kids to be ready to travel and know what it’s like. I thought that was an advantage.”
The players also espouse the concept.
“Traveling really made us bond together, especially with the younger guys stepping up to play,” said Dylan Tait, a senior who plays wide receiver and defensive back. “Getting that chemistry on the road really helped out.”
So did beefing up the schedule with bigger teams from larger schools.
“Going into the season we had confidence in ourselves that we could play with just about anybody,” said running back Bobby Cole, a senior. “So when we go onto the field facing a bigger team, I feel we just have to play our game. It’s not about who we’re playing, it’s how we approach it and if we play Sierra Canyon football.”
“So far we’ve risen to the occasion [playing bigger teams),” adds lineman Kanan Ray, a senior who’s committed to UCLA. “We always knew we could play at a high level, and we’ve proven to everybody else we could.”
Corona del Mar (12-1), seeded third, should be as good as any opponent Sierra Canyon has faced. It’s lone defeat was to Palos Verdes in it’s season opener back on Aug. 26. And the Sea Kings have played games this season in Los Gatos, Murrieta, Ontario, and last week in Lompoc.
Coach Dan O’Shea also felt a necessity in having a long distance schedule.
“We had this feeling that we needed to get used to going out of the area, because for the last 4-6 years we’ve been in an all-Orange County division for playoffs, and kind of scheduled Orange County or LA teams,” O’Shea said. “I said ‘we have to get our butts on a long bus ride and get used to it.’
“One thing we take great pride in is we don’t have a home stadium, kinda like Sierra Canyon. They get bus sed every game, and at least go to Granada Hills. We get on a bus and at least go to Estancia High, in Newport Harbor, for our home field. So the travel end of it doesn’t make it a big deal for us. But the length is an adjustment.”
There will be plenty of high-grade talent on both sidelines
Corona del Mar has a very capable quarterback in Chase Garbers, a senior and UC California Berkeley commit who has thrown for 3,699 yards and 46 touchdowns (against five interceptions) while completing almost 70 percent of his passes. His favorite receiver is Tae Le’, a junior who’s caught 73 passes for 1,241 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s certainly not the only option; eleven players have caught at least one pass this season for the Sea Kings.
And should the Trailblazers defensively concentrate primarily on stopping the pass, CDM has a potent running game led by junior tailback J.T. who has 951 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“They throw the ball a ton, and have a quarterback who’s very, very efficient. They run an offense that’s very dynamic, getting the ball out quick. We’ve developed into a more power-running team than we usually are because of our circumstances. They’re a much bigger school than we are; they have an advantage there were not many kids have to go both ways, where we do.”
Sierra Canyon still expects to be without senior quarterback Niko Harris, who hasn’t played since Sept. 2 after injuring his left knee against Buena High. But Johny Hawkins, a sophomore, has been a capable backup, passing for 1,518 yards and 17 touchdowns (against three interceptions) in 11 games. And the Trailblazers prefer to run the ball with Cole, whose rushed for 1,903 yards and 28 touchdowns.
O’Shea laughs at the suggestion that Sierra Canyon should be considered a “small” school.
“Their student population may [make them] a small school, but their football players are not small,” he said They’re as big and as fast as any team in this division. They are as talented as they come. They are the number one seed and they deserve it.
“They have incredible athleticism on the perimeter, both in the secondary and wide receivers, they have one of the best running backs in [the division] in Bobby Cole, and their offensive line is, without a doubt, the best we will have faced this season.”