Here’s an inside look at this week’s 2019 CIF Southern Section Division 3 semifinal football games.
At 12-0, Corona del Mar is only two games from completing the dream season and finally winning a Division 3 championship. They are the heavy favorites to do so, but everybody left in the field is a very worthy opponent unquestionably capable of knocking them off.
On paper, this might be a tough matchup for Alemany. They play a similar style of football as CdM–fast-paced, scoring-minded, and spread out led by elite passing attacks–but Corona del Mar has been a little more dominant this season. That’s often a recipe for a tough game, but all that matters is who shows up hotter, and Alemany has enough talent to pull off the upset.
Corona del Mar’s passing game is not earthly. Through 12 games, QB Ethan Garbers has 3,992 passing yards and 58 passing touchdowns on over 70% completion and only five interceptions, andhe can run. Joining him at Washington next year is another 4-star recruit, Mark Redman, one of the best receiving tight ends in the country at 6-6, 250. Stanford-commit John Humphreys is yet another 4-star recruit in their passing attack with 1,539 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns, and 3-star WR Bradley Schlom is up to 1,000 receiving yards as well after their 42-14 victory over Cajon. RB Riley Binnquist gives them a rushing presence who can, in theme, catch in the slot.
The Sea Hawks don’t get as much credit for their defense without as many top recruits on that end, but they haven’t given up more than 21 points in a game this season. Cornerbacks Chandler Fincher and Ryder Haupt and safeties Zack Green and Tommy Griffin headline an elite secondary. Without a ton of size, their front seven gets it done consistently by committee as well, featuring Brock Preston, Connor Brooks, Chase Zanck, Kevin Ledezma, and Cole Rener.
But Alemany has a star-studded passing attack too, and a little bit more presence on the ground. 4-star QB Miller Moss is one of the better pro-style quarterbacks in the country, with offers from Alabama, Cal, Georgia, UCLA, USC, and many more. He has excellent passing targets in Kevin Green Jr. and DJ Justice. There’s also RB Floyd Chalk, who had 1,127 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns coming into the Warriors’ 47-28 victory against Tesoro.
Defense isn’t their strong suit, mostly just because of a lack of age and experience, and they will be hard-pressed to stop CdM the way CdM has stopped everyone in sight this year. But the Warriors do have some major talent on that side of the ball and have generally gotten it done all year. ILB Niuafe Tuihalamaka is one of the top overall prospects in the C/O 2022, and is a standout along with LB Corey Neal for their front seven. Their secondary is quite deep, with ATH Jaylin Smith shining at corner along with Green, Ephesians Prysock, Jshawn Frausto Ramos, and Jalin Speed all in the fold. RJ Jones has been a major contributor at FS as a freshman.
It’s probably a year too early for this young Alemany squad that’s taking on a CdM squad that would be heavy favorites to win Division 2, but the Warriors are probably the last team Corona del Mar wants to see in the playoffs. They’re certainly capable of pulling off the upset and running away with the title. They’ll just have to bring their very best game of the season on both sides of the ball to have a realistic chance.
Both of these squads would’ve liked to close out their quarterfinals opponents with more room to spare going into this blockbuster matchup. For 10-2 La Habra, it might’ve been a case of shaking off some relative rust–compared to an ambitious preseason that featured games against Upland, Mission Viejo, and Calabasas, their league is a relative cakewalk, and Edison was the best team they’d seen in months. Grace Brethren (11-2) only beat Lawndale with two points to spare, although like Edison, Lawndale is a strong program and a tough out that will bring everything they’ve got even as heavy underdogs. Grace Brethren’s only loss of the year came narrowly in a non-league match against Sierra Canyon in Week 9 before beating Camarillo for the Camino League title in Week 10. And both of these squads are fairly thin and susceptible to having to play through fatigue and being banged up.
The biggest difference between these evenly matched foes is that La Habra keeps it in the air, and Grace Brethren shines on the ground. La Habra is led by Penn-commit QB Ryan Zanelli, a prolific and efficient pro-style quarterback. Coming into their win against Edison, he had 3,105 passing yards and 41 touchdowns to only two interceptions. Their top two receivers, Kristopher Koontz (1,110 yards) and Brandon Vasquez (960 yards), each have 12 receiving touchdowns apiece, and Clark Phillips III is a strong third option. They have an elite TE in Mason West but he’s been banged up the whole season, and his status is unknown. Running the ball, Ryan Loudon and Malik Estero are the biggest threats, but they only have a little over 100 combined carries this season. The Highlanders don’t have the biggest offensive line, but they execute with grit, and are led by OG Elijah Sauvao.
Grace Brethren essentially has two RB1s in Julien Stokes and Josh Henderson. Stokes got injured against Sierra Canyon and hasn’t played since. His injury status is unknown, and assuming he doesn’t play, that’s a major loss for the Lancers. But Henderson has 1,259 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns on the season, and would likely be getting recruited to play some RB were he not an even more highly touted prospect at MLB. DL Soane Toia also gets some fullback touches when a big man is needed to break through for a yard. The Lancers have a big, strong offensive line to clear the way, and an athletic dual-threat QB in Mikey Zele who evades tackles with the best of them and also has close to 2,000 passing yards on the season with only a few picks. The majority of his passing yardage goes to standout WR Nate Bennett.
Both teams are equally as good on defense as on offense. La Habra has one of the top cornerbacks in Phillips, who’s committed to Ohio State. His younger brother Bryce is also a solid D-1 prospect at CB and SS Justin Livi is another major contributor in the secondary. OLB Justin Brewer brings the drama in the front seven, where he’s joined by OLB Gabriel Martinez, MLB Isaiah Rosas, and DT Daniel Barrales, among others.
Grace Brethren’s biggest strength defensively is, well, everything, but first off they have one of the bigger and better front sevens around. They have two excellent ILBs in Henderson, a Colorado State commit, and Dez Diles, great OLBs in Cooper Robertson and Isac Garcia, and a huge defensive line featuring Soane and Jay Toia, and JD Henderson. Their secondary is led by Nate Bennett at safety and Payton Gourley at CB, along with George Bowers IV, Stokes (when healthy), and Luke Stuart.
There’s not a ton separating these two teams this season, and the health of Stokes and West could very well sway things if either is good to go. La Habra has gotten it done all year even without West, whereas Grace is still adjusting the absence of Stokes, and La Habra is already used to handling bigger opponents. It’s also nice to have a big name at quarterback at all levels of football with games and seasons on the line, and Zanelli is rock-steady under center for the Highlanders. For those reasons, one could give La Habra a miniscule edge, but this game is anyone’s for the take.