Teams from power conferences on both ends of the Sac-Joaquin Section collide in the second round of the Division II playoffs.
No. 6 Rocklin of the Sierra Foothill League travels to David Patton Field to face No. 3 Central Catholic, the runner-up from the Valley Oak League conference.
The SFL is one of two conferences in the section to receive four automatic postseason berths, a nod to its strength and historically dominant programs.
The VOL only gives out three automatic berths, but it ranks among the most accomplished leagues in Northern California. A VOL program has won at least one CIF State Bowl champion in five consecutive seasons, including four straight by the Raiders from 2012 to 2015.
Neither is a top-two seed or champion from their respective conference, but that should not diminish the show.
Central Catholic coach Roger Canepa expects a game of crunching tackles, supreme execution and an epic battle of wills.
“Their losses are to Granite Bay by 13, Folsom, Oak Ridge and Clovis West. Them are some pretty good teams,” Canepa said. “They’ve beaten Del Oro and Grant, you with me? So they’re pretty good.
“They’re ranked 71st (in the state by MaxPreps) with four losses. That means they’re playing some dudes. That means the teams they’ve lost to are ranked pretty high.”
Central Catholic boasts the same kind of schedule. The Raiders have proven themselves in victories over St. Mary’s and Manteca, and to some extent, even in a loss to Oakdale, the reigning Division III and CIF State Division III-A champion.
Rocklin will be the Raiders’ toughest test, Canepa says, because of the caliber of opponent and the stakes.
“It’s do or die; you lose and you go home,” Canepa added. “That makes it bigger than all the rest. We’re assured 10 games and that’s all we get. Now we’re assured nothing.
“Look at all the upsets in the first round -- Capital Christian and Calaveras (the top-two seeds in Division V). It’s way different that the regular season. You have to be ready to play every Friday or you’re done.”
Rocklin will try to extinguish the Raiders’ section title hopes with a multi-faceted shotgun offense.
Quarterback Cade Wyant will set up in the backfield, forcing the defense to honor his ability to run and pass. Wyant has thrown for 1,524 yards and 10 touchdowns, completing 59.8 percent of his passes. He’s also second on the team in rushing TDs with two.
The Thunder, which pulled away from depleted Downey in the second half last week, feature four players with 100 or more rushing yards, including: Blayden Brown (402 yards, eight TDs), Richard Purvis (296/1), Damiano Parra (165), and Hunter Gonzalez (109/1).
“They might throw the ball more than us and they’re big up front,” Canepa said. “With the gun, you get another guy who can carry the football. The quarterback becomes another threat. He’ll run it a little. They’re a sound football team. They run multiple formations and they do what they want to do.”
Central Catholic won’t deviate from the script, either.
Canepa plans to play senior quarterback Theo Azevedo and sophomore call-up Jordan Barton. Both received passing grades for their play in last week’s 65-18 victory over Stagg. Azevedo was 7 of 12 for 77 yards, while Barton (4 of 9, 57 yards) recorded his first varsity touchdown and interception. Canepa will name a starter later in the week, allowing each to battle and prepare as if they’re the No. 1.
“By the end of the week, I’ll have a starter,” he said. “No matter what, I feel comfortable playing both of them. They’re getting better. We have to have two guys ready to go. They did a good job of leading the troops last week, we’ll keep it going.”
A veteran of these playoff wars, Canepa, now in his 23rd season of coaching in the Stanislaus District, believes his advantage isn’t on the field. It’s in the locker room, where seniors have galvanized this blue-collar bunch.
He points to seniors Brandon Williamson and Coleby Garrett, two-way players who have championed the “We” mantra. Garrett scored four touchdowns in last week’s victory, while Williamson is an all-conference lineman on both sides of the ball. Williamson has played through pain this season.
Canepa said he’s got a surgically repaired toe that flares up from time to time.
“We got other guys, too, but they play hard on both sides of the ball,” Canepa said. “They're the two guys that get the team going. Coleby blocks and gets a few carries and goes and plays defense. Brandon has had a bad toe all year. We rest him for a bit and then he gives you everything he's got. The kids see that.”