It’s one of sports’ age-old questions that crops up every year, and especially this time of year — championship week.
Is it better to be a hot team or a great team? And where does Bishop Alemany High fit into the puzzle?
Coach Casey Clausen doesn’t flinch.
“A hot team is playing well, and has probably had some good fortune. A great team, there are very few of those,” Clausen said.
“A great team is sound offensively, defensively and on special teams. But because we’re coaching high school kids and not professionals, once in a while you can have a great day and once in a while you can have a bad day. With high school sports, you just never know until you get out there and the ball starts flying around.”
The Alemany Warriors (8-3), who host Orange Lutheran (9-4) for the Southern Section Division 2 championship on Saturday, Nov. 27, would definitely be classified by some as a hot team for the simple fact of having won seven straight after a 1-3 start, including last week’s 56-30 pounding of previously unbeaten Inglewood High in a semifinal game.
But the Warriors also know that by defeating the Lancers — who reached the final by outlasting Sierra Canyon, 42-40, in last week’s other semifinal — puts them in the conversation of great teams.
That’s a recognition Alemany, which won the Mission League this season, has within in its reach. And it’s a goal Clausen and his staff set for themselves when they took over the program four years ago.
“A lot of the kids competing and playing have been with us for four years,” said Clausen, who played his high school football here and went on to enjoy an excellent college career as a quarterback at the University of Tennessee. He also spent time with Kansas City in the NFL, and the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe.
“They played as freshmen, and it was maybe a little bit big for them,” Clausen said. “As sophomores and juniors they got more comfortable with it. And now, as seniors and juniors, I’m really pleased with their progress.”
Clausen said he “purposely” scheduled the toughest games he could for Alemany to start the year, against Lone Pine of Highland Utah, and California schools St. John Bosco of Bellflower, Oaks Christian of Westlake, and Mission Viejo. It was more than simply an early measuring stick; it was a legitimate indicator of what might be possible for this year’s team.
“Two of those games we were somewhat competitive, and I thought defensively we were good in three of them,” Clausen said. “But the Mission Viejo game was not close to being competitive.
“After the Mission Viejo game we made it a point to adjust a couple of things, try to get the running game going a bit more, and do what we felt gave us the best chance to compete. I’m proud of how the kids have grown and developed each week.”
The Warriors have not lost since that Sept. 17 game against Mission Viejo. And their running game is one of the best around, thanks primarily to a massive offensive line comprised of seniors Samiuela Palu, Isaí Perez, Jr., and Samiuela Sefa, and juniors Rhino Tapaátoutai and Aitor Urionbarrenechea, who have been opening huge holes for primary backs Floyd Chalk and Jaylen Thompson to run through each week.
Tapaátoutai said it took time this season to develop the necessary chemistry for the team as a whole “with the transfers coming in. But playing all those big schools, we found it after playing Mission Viejo. That’s when the bond started building up.”
The offensive line has a special level of trust needed because it does require the players to work as a unit for the offense to excel. Sefa, who has played at Alemany since he was a freshman, indicated the offensive line as a group this season has worked hard at being a fist, rather than five separate fingers.
“We’ve played great competition, and I feel we’re ready for the next level,” Sefa said. “We’ve really helped each other over the years to get better. I’m happy we’re here in [the D2 title game], and maybe compete for a state title.”
Perez echoed those thoughts.
“Saying it’s ‘satisfying’ [to reach a championship game] is an understatement,” he said. “We have a great group of guys, and to be where we are now is very rewarding.
“I started off the season as a defensive lineman and we had [an offensive lineman] go down. For me to fill in and have these guys guide me along the way, it’s been one heck of a ride. I’m so happy to be with these guys. I know they have my back. We have a great run game and I’m sure everybody knows that. To see how it has developed over the season has been very exciting to watch.”
Urionbarrenechea added that the other offensive linemen have gone out of their way to make him feel part of the group
“It was very easy [to fit in],” Urionbarrenechea said. “They all welcomed me to the team. It felt like a family with my fellow linemen. They’ve all helped me keep it together. And we always bring each other up no matter what.”
The Warriors are not the only ones from this area hoping to cap their season in grand style (as well as be a part of the pending regional and state championship games).
In the City Section, Valley teams have a stake in every title contest. Top seed Birmingham Charter High seeks to defend the Open Division title it won in 2019 (the 2020 game was not played due to the pandemic) against San Pedro High, the second seed. In Division I, 13th seed Canoga Park High — which stunned No. 1 seed Dorsey High of Los Angeles in the semifinal — faces Venice High, the second seed.
The Division II title game pits top seed El Camino Real Charter High against Hamilton High of Los Angeles, the third seed. And the Division III final will be an all-Valley affair, with No. 1 seed Taft Charter High facing Panorama High, the No. 3 seed. (See the Game of the Week box for all dates and starting times.)
The Alemany-Orange Lutheran game certainly qualifies as a marquee matchup. And whoever wins on Saturday will have earned it.
“They are a really good team,” Clausen said of the Lancers. “A physical team with a bunch of good athletes. The biggest thing with them is, they play in the Trinity League” — where Bosco also plays — “which is the best league in the county. They compete against elite talent week in and week out. We’ll definitely have to have our ‘A’ game ready to go to line up with them. They’re definitely battle-tested.”
But so is Alemany. And the Warriors are confident, Palu said.
“What we’ve got to do is play to the best of our potential and try to dominate with the run game,” he said. “I don’t think there is a school that can stop our run game with the linemen and the running backs we have.
“[Orange Lutheran] is a worthy opponent. Anyone who comes from that league is a worthy opponent. We have to watch film this week and know who this opponent is. Then line up and play.”