MODESTO -- Herman Harris and John Kreifels aren't sure where they'll be playing football next season. Both Downey High defenders know they'll be in uniform, whether junior college or a four-year school, and they realize tonight is an opportunity to earn a spot.
"Last year, when we had Del Campo down here for the playoff opener, we had UC Davis and Sac State coaches in the stands," said coach Jeremy Plaa, whose club is hosting Bethel Friday in a Division 1 opener. "The playoffs mean the competition gets intense. The guys you have questions about, you can get your answers during the playoffs."
It's what Harris and Kreifels are hoping for. Harris (6-1, 180 pounds) is a physical safety who must convince colleges that he's fast enough, while Kreifels (5-9, 205) is an undersized linebacker who has to show schools he's big enough for the role.
"Bethel has a running back and a quarterback who are being recruited, so it's a chance for us to show we can play at that level," said Kreifels, whose competition for the Modesto Metro Conference Defensive Player of the Year is Harris. "Coaches aren't coming out for our league games. They want to watch the best versus the best."
No one would confuse the Knights' defense with being the best, but it's significantly improved from last year.
It has an impact player at each level. Austin Holt (6-3, 250) at end, Kreifels behind him and Harris playing the last line of defense. Just a few years ago, you couldn't name a potential prospect from its sieve-like defense.
Downey was giving up 50, 60 and 70 points a game just a few years ago. It's giving up 18.9 points this year, the first time it's kept foes under 20 points a game since the MMC was born in 2004.
Kreifels is the most physical player in the MMC, and running backs often cringe as they brace for a hit: He's tops with 56 tackles. It's not a lot of tackles compared to his peers, but Downey has 15 players averaging at least three tackles a game. Harris is one, with 46 tackles in 10 games, but he's got five interceptions and five passes deflected, with his five TDs.
"A punt return for a touchdown, or a defensive score, they can turn around a playoff game," said Harris, who has returned two punts and two picks for TDs. "Our win over Central Catholic, those TDs helped us get the win."
Harris returned a punt 54 yards for a TD and an interception 23 yards for another in the 45-42 upset of Central perhaps the most significant football win by a city school in some two decades.
That was the win that got Downey (9-1) a No. 4 seed in Division 1, so No. 5 Granite Bay would have to come to Modesto in a quarterfinal.
That would be a second opportunity for Kreifels, Harris and their teammates to audition for a college coach.
Downey went seven years without a playoff berth, prior to last year's loss, and its last playoff win was 1987. A piece of history, the Knights won with defense a 7-0 upset of potent Vintage High.
That was 25 years ago.
There's isn't a player who has even seen Downey win a playoff game, much less had a hand in the victory.
That's the next step needed to move the program forward, a postseason win that can be used to generate momentum for the offseason.
Downey will need that defensive presence next year, because it's got to break in a new quarterback to replace Aaron Zwahlen. He's tops in California with 44 TD passes, and has made a commitment to the University of Hawaii.
"We'll be confident throwing the ball against anyone, but the playoffs demand solid defense, too," Plaa noted. "We've got a great player at each level of the defense and we have solid guys around them. They get to the ball."