Here’s an inside look at this week’s 2019 CIF Southern Section Division 9 semifinal football games.
The first, second, and fourth seeds in Division 9 are now all out of the running. Neither contestant in this semifinal was seeded, although San Dimas (11-1) now has to be considered a top threat to win the title after pulling off arguably the biggest upset of the playoffs in knocking out top-seeded Foothill last week. In fact, every team left in the field has fairly equally solid chances of winning the championship with Foothill gone and San Dimas now on everybody’s radar.
Why was San Dimas so under the radar at 10-1 coming into last week? For one, they did lose 35-26 to a struggling Whittier squad that ended up forfeiting, and two, they really didn’t have any impressive wins on the season other than beating Northview 27-13. The Saints lost 35-25 to Bonita as well this season, who is strong but not as strong as anyone left in this playoff field, let alone Foothill.
10-2 North is in the same boat essentially, with blowout losses against strong foes in San Pedro and Inglewood, and otherwise nothing but wins against low-division teams without a chance. Like San Dimas, they’re coming off their best game of the season, a 41-10 blowout of Palm Springs.
Both of these teams have had strong seasons defensively, especially North, and prefer running the ball to passing, especially San Dimas. San Dimas was already at a whopping 4,262 rushing yards on the season coming into the game against Foothill. RB Nicholas Cuda runs the show (pun not intended) with 1,536 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground, with 321 more yards and four more touchdowns in the air through only nine games of action. Bleau Wallace and Jacob Buccola both had exactly 993 rushing yards on the season coming into that game as well, and a combined 23 rushing touchdowns. That means the Saints have three running backs with over 1,000 rushing yards on the season, and around 4,000 rushing yards among them, which very few teams can ever lay claim to.
Cuda, Wallace, and Buccola are the top receivers as well when San Dimas passes the ball. QB Ryan Bulick has been steady this season when they do opt to pass. Billy Hennessy is a standout at TE as well.
Offensively, North strongly prefers the run-game as well, with prolific RB Stephen Bradford up to 1,923 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns on the season. Toa Ortega has been a solid second option at RB as well this season as a sophomore. But they have a bit more of a presence in the air than San Dimas, with freshman QB Trevor Ke’enan Lagarde throwing for 26 touchdowns and 1,713 yards this season and a standout WR in Blake Banks. Joey McCormack and Denzel Alexander have also been threats at receiver this year, and Bradford sometimes sees time at slot back.
Not a whole lot separates these teams on defense either. A lot of San Dimas playmakers double as starters on defense, with Wallace at LB and Hennessy at DE in a front seven led by junior LB Frank Herrera. DE Tyrell Rogers and LB James Huey are also big contributors up front. For North, there is also a dependence on two-way play with McCormack at OLB/SS and Bradford somehow having enough energy to stand out at CB in addition to contending for Division 9 offensive player of the year. MLB Nicholas Cobos, DT Roman Garcia, LB Koa Carroll, and DE David Ukatu also anchor a strong front seven.
This is how a semifinal should be–evenly matched. Both teams have momentum and a lot of common strengths. San Dimas would be hard to bet against after knocking off Foothill, and will have a great shot at winning out if they can repeat that defensive effort two more times. But it would be foolish to try to pick a clear frontrunner or underdog here.
Highland is the only seeded team remaining in the Division 9 bracket. You can make an argument that they should be considered the biggest favorite left in the field as a seeded team with strong wins over Bonita and Lakewood to begin the playoffs. They have to like their chances, but there’s not much separating them from anyone they’ll have to face going forward.
Before facing the main gauntlet of the brutal Sunset League, losing 44-3 to Los Alamitos, 56-17 to Corona del Mar, and 57-7 against Edison, Newport Harbor was 7-0 on the season. After finishing the regular season in what was destined to be an ugly manner, they’ve bounced back with close wins over St. Anthony and then Monrovia, who is the best team they’ve beaten this season along with perhaps Aliso Niguel. The Sailors haven’t slipped up this season except against elite competition.
With an equal spread of passing and running the ball, Highland has a strong, balanced offense led by mostly seniors and almost exclusively by upperclassmen. Damien Pecoraro is nearing 2,000 passing yards on the season with an efficient passer rating of 119.8, and Isaiah Creech does basically all the running with 1,551 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns on the season. Pecoraro has a consistent, deep receiving corps to throw to, with Joshua Clark, Demarius Jamison, and Jaycob Spiteri all with over 350 yards on the year and Darius Wilson in the mix as well. Additionally, Creech happens to be their third-leading receiver as an option at slot, and leads the Bulldogs in receiving touchdowns.
Newport Harbor is the only team left in Division 9 that passes the ball more often than running it. Sophomore pro-style QB Nick Kim took over at the beginning of October, and was thrown into the fire just in time for Los Al, CdM, and Edison. He’s found his sea legs just in time for a playoff run, and has leading rusher and second-leading receiver RB/WR Justin McCoy to work with, in addition to top WR Aidan Goltz and a lot of other options to throw to.
The numbers say that Highland is a little bit better defensively, although it’s really hard to say when you factor in who Newport Harbor has lost to. The Bulldogs hang their hat on an aggressive front seven with a lot of edge rushing threats. LB Daniel Brown and DE Darius Wilson lead the way with 113 tackles with 24 for loss, and 71 tackles with 36 for loss, respectively. LBs Brandon Farnetti and Jamal Jones have both had strong seasons. DT Alberto Ortiz has also been a huge factor, with 32 tackles for loss on the season. In addition to his 1,900 all-purpose yards on the season, Isaiah Creech leads the secondary as a strong safety who often functions as yet another defensive threat for Highland near the line of scrimmage.
When you take out the bleeding against their three in-league foes who blew them out, Newport Harbor has been very strong on defense as well this year. DL/LB Erik Hehl, MLB Chad Koste, and OLB Johnny Brigandi anchor the front seven, and Michael Morrison leads the charge for the secondary at FS.
Highland might have a slight edge in this one, especially because of their advantage in age and experience. But one major advantage for Newport Harbor is that they’ve seen a couple foes that would dominate Division 9 in Edison and Los Alamitos, and one of the better teams in the whole country in Corona del Mar. Whether or not the Sailors consider themselves the more talented team, which seems to be a tossup, they’ll probably not show much fear at whatever comes their way. So far this postseason, they haven’t.