From the first practices under the broiling July sun to weathering deepening winter chill that is now December, dozens of Valley area football teams — both in 11-man and 8-man, City Section and Southern Section — have battled their best to reach the final week of the prep season.
Two have made it.
Reseda High, a City Section champion, and Sierra Canyon, a Southern Section champion, both won their regional playoff games and now have the opportunity to play a Northern California team for a state CIF title.
Sierra Canyon (14-1) will take on Central High of Fresno, CA (14-0) in the Division 1-AA game on Friday, Dec. 13, at Cerritos College. The kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.
Reseda (11-3) will travel to Milpitas, CA, located in Santa Clara County, to play Milpitas High (8-6) in the Division 5-A game on Saturday, Dec. 14. The kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
It’s easier to say Sierra Canyon expected to be here. The Trailblazers won the section Division 3 championship last year and eventually reached the state title game held at Cerritos College, losing to Liberty High of Brentwood, CA.
“The experience of [having played in a state title game] will help,” Trailblazers Coach Jon Ellinghouse said. “There will be motivation. It’s not like we’ve been sitting here every day talking about the loss, but we knew it would be pretty hard to get back here. And we’re gonna take the game a little more seriously, work a little harder, and try and do what it takes to get it done.”
Reseda, on the other hand is a bit of a surprise being a state finalist. The Regents last won a City championship in 1995 and are making their first appearance in this game.
“It’s definitely more than we anticipated,” Regents Coach Alonso Arreola said. “But the run we’ve gone on the last 4-5 games has a lot to do with our maturing as a team. And that includes the seniors. They have played with more controlled aggression and discipline, instead of just being this wild group. They knew they were talented but didn’t always know when to hold themselves back.”
The only loss for Sierra Canyon this season was to Oaks Christian High of Westlake Village back on Sept. 6. Their opponent, winners of the Central Section, has yet to lose in 2019. The closest the Grizzlies have come to losing was their 38-32 victory over Oak Ridge High of El Dorado Hills, CA, in last week’s regional playoff game.
The Trailblazers — who defeated Helix High of La Mesa, CA in their regional playoff game, 38-20 — have never played Central before and only have this week to prepare, making film study an intense endeavor.
But the coach also expressed a confidence in his players. While Sierra Canyon has played at a consistently high level this year, Ellinghouse feels the team is continuing to peak.
“I’d say we’ve been playing our best football the last couple of weeks. We’re really humming both offensively and defensively, and I’m really excited about the way our team is playing. We’re not the same group as last year; we had to get our mojo going. But I think we’ve also figured out what we do well, and what we had to work on.”
Milpitas, Reseda’s opponent, may not have the most glittering overall record, but the Trojans did win the Central Coast Section title, and last week defeated Caruthers High in their regional game. They are the epitome of a hot team, having won seven in a row.
But the Regents are also on fire, having won their last eight games. In shutting out Esperanza Highof Anaheim in their regional game last week, Arreola thought his team played “its best game” of the season.
Like Sierra Canyon, Reseda is playing a team with which it has no familiarity.
“We hope to find (on film) some tendencies. The thing you cannot judge on film is overall speed or how physical a team is.” Arreola said.
The travel is a potential obstacle. Reseda plans to arrive in Milpitas on Friday, and in other seasons Arreola might have worried about his team keeping its focus.
But not this team, at this time.
Birmingham and Canoga Park
The regional games did not end well for City Section teams Birmingham or Canoga Park. Both saw their 2019 seasons end; the Patriots were beaten at home in the Division 2-A game by Pacifica High of Oxnard, 51-23, and the Hunters were eliminated in their Division 6-AA game by host South High of Torrance, 47-28.
The sting of those defeats may not last long because they don’t take away the City titles they won.
Birmingham won the Open Division, its first title since 2007. In doing so, Jim Rose joined some select company. Since 1997, only a handful of other head coaches of Valley teams have won championships — Richard Hayashida at El Camino Real, Troy Starr at Taft, Bill Coan at Chatsworth, Jeff Engilman at Arleta, Robert Garcia at San Fernando, and Ed Croson — the man Rose replaced at Birmingham.
“After the (Pacifica) game I told our guys ‘the loss has no effect on your season,’” Rose said. “Our goal was not ‘State’ in the beginning. Now the bar has been raised a little bit because [of winning the City title]. So, the younger guys may have a newer goal. (The Pacifica game) got away from us but they were a very good team.”
What Rose will remember personally was “getting the Patriots over the hump” as far as winning a City title. “It’s not easy to replace a legend, and Ed was a legend here, winning four titles in six years. We had won seven league titles (since he left). But the championship kinda vindicates other things. Because for us, the bar was a little higher.”
Canoga Park had waited even longer for a title. The Hunters had gone 38 years since their last championship — a 3A co-championship they shared with Van Nuys because the game ended in a tie. The team’s only other outright championship was in 1968.
“It’s been a very long time for Canoga Park football,” noted Coach Kevin Carlsen. “[This season] still feels a little bit surreal; but the kids played together all season long…we might get moved up [to Division 1] next year but we like the challenge.
“But the kids are never gonna forget this. Every time they go back to a Canoga Park game after graduation, they’re gonna be that team that won a City championship. It’s no longer just the 1981 guys or the 1968 guys. It’s also the 2019 guys.”