TURKEY AND FOOTBALL: The best prep football teams practice on Thanksgiving

By: Mike Ray of the Auburn Journal
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Compiled by the Sac-Joaquin Section

For the first time in Section history, five teams from the same league are in the semifinals. The league is the Sierra Foothill League, with Folsom and Oak Ridge in D1 and Rocklin, Del Oro and Granite Bay in D2. At least one of those teams is going to make it to the finals, as Del Oro and Granite Bay — fourth- and fifth-place teams in the league — play each other. DO beat GB 17-14 in week 10 this year, a game the Golden Eagles needed to win just to make the playoffs. Four teams from the same league have made the playoffs a handful of times.

The last time that happened was in 2013, when the Delta River League and Southern League each had four teams make the semis. The DRL saw all four of its teams — Folsom, Jesuit, Pleasant Grove and Oak Ridge — make the D1 semifinals. Also that year, the SL saw four teams advance to the semis. Le Grand, Waterford and Mariposa made the D5 semis and Ripon Christian got to the D6 semifinals.

Those five SFL teams have combined for 10 Section championships and 15 such appearances since 2009. Every school except for Oak Ridge has won a championship in that time, with Folsom leading the way with four titles and five championship game appearances. Despite their lengthy postseason histories, D1 semifinal opponents Folsom and St. Mary’s as well as Oak Ridge and Elk Grove have never faced each other in the playoffs. Folsom (38) and St. Mary’s (55) have combined for 93 playoff games without facing off, while Oak Ridge (50) and Elk Grove (67) have combined for 117 games without a mutual contest.

Rocklin and Antelope, meeting in the D2 semifinals, have met in the postseason once before. The Titans beat the Thunder 31-24 in a D2 first-round game in 2012. Until this year, that was Antelope’s only postseason victory in school history.

Granite Bay and Del Oro have met once a year as members of the Sierra Foothill League, but they’ve only faced each other once in the section postseason. That was in the 2007 Division II championship game, which saw Grizzlies receiver Brandon Michalkiewicz catch eight passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns. Granite Bay’s team that year also featured receiver Peyton Thompson, who would go on to San Jose State and play one game in the NFL, in 2014 for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Placer is in the semifinals for the first time since 2009, when the Hillmen advanced to the Division IV championship game. There, they lost 61-40 to Modesto Christian and future NFL player Isaiah Burse. While Central Catholic and Placer have never played each other in the playoffs, the teams are familiar with each other. They played in the regular season twice, in 2012 and 2013, with each team winning once. In 2013, Central Catholic beat the Hillmen 49-13 en route to the CIF small schools state championship. In 2012, Placer beat the Raiders 48-30 and finished the season 10-0. It was the last time, before this year, the Hillmen finished the regular season 10-0; they would lose to Escalon in the second round of the D4 playoffs that year.

Bear River has a five-game postseason winning streak heading into this D5 championship against Sonora. The Bruins played the Wildcats once before in the postseason; that was a 42-20 Sonora victory in a Division IV first-round game in 2011. Bear River’s last two championship appearances were last year (it beat Colfax for the blue banner) and 1995.

The countdown has started for the California Interscholastic Federation’s first true state-wide bowl football championship games.

With most CIF sections around the state putting their championship games on this weekend or next, the state playoff committee will then have the task on Sunday, Dec. 6 of assigning north and south regional bowl game opponents.

The two-week bowl playoff series will begin with regional games Dec. 11-12 and then culminate with championship games around the state in 13 different divisions on Dec. 18 and 19.

On Friday, Dec. 18, Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium will be the site of the Division II-AA game at 4 p.m., followed by the Division I-AA game at 8 p.m.

On Saturday, Dec. 19 at Hornet Stadium, three title games will be played. The Division I-A game will kick off at noon, followed by the Open Division small school game at 4 p.m. and the Open Division large school contest at 8 p.m.

The other eight state title games will be played at host sites around California on Saturday, Dec. 19 with 6 p.m. kickoffs.

Locally, for the first time since 2009, more than one team is practicing on Thanksgiving Day, a tell-tale sign that a team, depending on what division it is in, is headed for a CIF final or semi-final game.

In a first for the area, three teams – Placer, Del Oro and Bear River – are all still alive in their respective brackets.

This Friday, Placer (12-0) will play Central Catholic (12-0) in Modesto in a Division III semi-final game while Del Oro (6-6) will host Granite Bay (7-5) in Loomis in a Division II semi-final game.

Bear River, meanwhile, has reached the CIF’s Division V section title game for the second straight season. The Bruins (9-3) will play Sonora (11-1) Saturday at Elk Grove High at 1 p.m. for the Division V crown.

This is the first time the local area has had this many teams still playing after Thanksgiving. In 2009, Placer defeated Calaveras, 43-23, on turkey day Friday and Del Oro topped St. Mary’s of Stockton, 30-29.  The Hillmen would go on to fall to Modesto Christian in the Division IV final while Del Oro lost to Rocklin in the Division II title game.

Prior to that, it was 2006 with two post-turkey day teams still alive. Colfax downed Rio Linda, 19-7, in Division III and Del Oro fell to Grant, 27-10, in Division II.

Play-in game looms

It appears that the CIF state office has avoided what could have been opening a big can of worms in its inaugural bowl football championship series.

Because of the uneven amount of section winners in the north part (14) of the state  compared to the southern portion (13), a play-in game at the regional level will be played on either Friday, Dec. 4 or Saturday, Dec. 5 to bring the CIF north bowl team numbers down to 13.

Because of the need for a play-in game next weekend, only CIF teams from the Sac-Joaquin Section’s Divisions IV, V, VI and VII, four north section champions and champions from San Francisco and Oakland, would be eligible for the play-in game.

An early rumor circulating through prep circles claimed two Sac-Joaquin Section teams would have to meet in the play-in game in order to advance.

However, that is apparently false.

“We haven’t set any criteria on the play-in game and who will play in it,” CIF state media relations director Rebecca Brutlag said. “We’re still deciding on a process but the committee will have a lot of section winners to select from.”

Defense anyone?

When Tom Johnson sees some of the Sac-Joaquin Section football playoff results on the Friday night television sports scoreboard, he probably wants to put down his cup of hot chocolate, open a window and scream to anyone who will listen: “Doesn’t anyone play defense anymore?”

Johnson, the architect of many standout Placer High defenses in the Hillmen glory days of the 1970s and ‘80s, coached defensive units at Placer that prided themselves on playing good, hard-nosed defense and being stingy when it came to allowing points.

“The game has changed so much from then,” Johnson said recently. “It’s basically basketball on grass now.”

In the recent CIF Sac-Joaquin Section opening round, games scores such as Inderkum defeating Lincoln, 83-32, Sacramento High topping McNair, 85-46, and Gustine defeating Rio Vista, 70-54, made Placer’s 56-41 win over River Valley seem like a ho-hum affair.

Johnson, who played on USC’s Rose Bowl team of 1962 and, after coaching at Placer, was the school’s principal, noted that the high-scoring results of late aren’t just on the prep levels.

“It’s not just high school either,” Johnson said. “The college game is what started it. I’m screaming at the television on Saturdays and my wife’s asking me if I’m alright.”

In 1976, with Johnson calling Placer’s defense, Placer defeated St. Mary’s of Stockton, 28-20, in the CIF Division II championship game. At the time, that was considered a high-scoring contest. Now, a 28-20 score is typical at the end of the first quarter.

“We used to try and use the Bud Wilkinson-Oklahoma technique that took away the inside on passing routes,” Johnson said. “We wanted the sideline to be our friend. Let them run wide and pass outside.”

In the 35 games played the first weekend of Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, 24 had winning teams with 40 points or more.

Remarkably, in 22 of those games, the losing team had 20 or more points.

In what now seems a by-gone era, Colfax’s 1986 team won a CIF Division III section championship defeating Oak Ridge, 3-0. Bear River also turned the trick by taking a 3-0 win over Golden Sierra in a CIF title game in 1994.

“I think those days are history,” Johnson said.