The Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs get under way on Nov. 13, and SportStars’ Jim McCue takes a closer look inside each of the fields for Div. I-VI.
THE FAVORITE: Folsom (10-0). The Bulldogs are not runaway favorites like they were last year, but they are still top dog until someone knocks them off of the championship pedestal. Senior quarterback Jake Jeffrey has picked up where Jake Browning left off behind center, albeit with a different skill set. Jeffrey has passed for 2,566 yards and 31 TDs (with just 4 INTs), but he is a dual-threat out of the backfield with 596 rushing yards and 8 more scores. Alabama-bound Jonah Williams anchors one of the section’s best offensive lines and also puts in time in the trenches on defense, when needed. Senior WR Christian Huber leads a deep stable of receivers, including RBs Roger Neal and Tre Green, with 40 catches for 626 yards and 6 TDs. In all, 10 different players have hauled in TD catches and seven different players have at least 10 receptions. Lost in all of the attention paid to Folsom’s offense is a stout defense that allowed an average of 11 points per game in the Sac-Joaquin Section’s best and deepest league.
CONTENDERS: Elk Grove (10-0); Oak Ridge (8-2); Napa (10-0).
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Merced (7-3). The Bears have won six straight games, including a perfect 5-0 run through the Central California Conference, after a rough 1-3 start against tough challengers that included Fresno powers Clovis West, Clovis North, and Edison. Merced does enough to get the “W” with a balanced offensive attack (1,842 passing yards, 14 TDs; 1,471 rushing yards, 15 TDs) and a bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Bears could surprisingly keep pace with No. 2 Elk Grove in the second round if the Thundering Herd overlook them.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH: Ryan Robards (Elk Grove). The senior has done it all while leading the Thundering Herd to a perfect record and the second seed behind defending state champ Folsom. Robards is nearing 2,000 yards rushing (1,927 yards, 30 rushing TDs) and has scored five different ways (rushing, receiving, interception return, fumble return, and punt return) for a total of 36 trips to the end zone. Additionally, he is averaging 44.5 yards per punt and has converted 4-of-5 field goal attempts, including a 51-yarder.
GAME WE WANT TO SEE: Oak Ridge at Elk Grove. This semifinal would pit Robards against Ian Book, the Trojans’ QB who is committed to Notre Dame, as well as two powerful programs. Book has shown his own versatility (2,429 yards passing, 25 TDs; 637 yards rushing, 11 TDs) and has a pair of 700-yard receivers in seniors Kevin Kassis and Tommy Dunnigan. It would likely be an instant classic with Elk Grove head coach Chris Nixon and Oak Ridge head coach Eric Cavaliere matching wits for a berth in the section final.
FINALS PREDICTION: Elk Grove 31, Folsom 28.
THE FAVORITE: Grant-Sacramento (9-1). The Pacers have never won back-to-back SJS titles, but they have won seven section championships and qualified for the playoffs for a section-record 25th consecutive season, all under the direction of head coach Mike Alberghini. With one postseason victory, Alberghini will become the winningest head coach in the region (he is currently tied at 261 wins with Max Miller, who is retired). DeShawn Collins posted his second consecutive 2,000 yard season and is running strong down the stretch with 1,222 yards and 14 TDs in the last five games, including a career-high 372 yards and 5 TDs in a 73-35 rout of Davis. Backfield mate Mike Green II has added 869 rushing yards behind the Pacers’ massive offensive line, which includes senior Soape Tupou and junior Orlando Umana among its mammoth blockers. Grant’s tough defense is led by senior LBs Elijah Orr (team-high 95 tackles) and David Moala (80 tackles, 8 sacks, and a game-saving blocked FG).
CONTENDERS: Antelope (10-0); Rocklin (7-3); Wood-Vacaville (9-1).
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Del Oro-Loomis (4-6). The Golden Eagles played their typical monster nonleague schedule before running the gauntlet of the Sierra Foothill League slate. Head coach Casey Taylor’s squad lost two heartbreakers against Hawaii power Punahou and Bay Area juggernaut Bellarmine-San Jose and endured a four-game losing skid in October. But the team bounced back with wins against SFL foes Woodcreek and Granite Bay in the season finale to earn a playoff berth. Senior RB Dalton Gee grinded out 108 yards and 2 TDs in Del Oro’s 17-14 win over Granite Bay, and junior QB Stone Smartt added 52 yards on 7 carries as the Golden Eagles ran for a season-high 260 yards. Colorado commit Trey Udoffia (613 yards receiving, 7 TDs) is a dangerous offensive weapon and the defensive secondary which includes senior Justin Burrage and junior Mason Hurst can flip a game with a timely turnover.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH: Tayvian Cunningham and Arthur Jackson (Wood-Vacaville). Technically, it’s cheating to have two players here, but the senior WR duo hauled in 98 passes for 2,009 yards and 28 TDs. Cunningham was a known entity coming into the season, and recorded his second consecutive 1,000-yard season with 1,022 yards and counting after a 1,385-yard campaign in 2014. Jackson missed most of last season with an injury, but has been more than a compliment to Cunningham with 987 yards receiving and counting to go along with 19 TDs. Whoever faces the No. 4 Wildcats better have a deep secondary to cover these two guys.
GAME WE WANT TO SEE: McNair-Stockton vs. Sacramento. The Saturday matinee in Oak Park features two of the section’s top QBs. Eagles’ senior Osai Brown has thrown for 2,979 yards and 44 TDs (vs. 6 INTs) while completing 70 percent of his passes. His favorite target, Derrion Grim, has 87 catches for 1,767 yards and a state-best 31 TDs (just 3 TDs shy of the California record set by Folsom’s Cole Thompson last year in 16 games). Dragons’ signal-caller Caden Voges has thrown for 2,278 yards and 33 TDs this season, and became just the sixth QB in California history to throw for more than 10,000 yards in a career. Voges enters the postseason with 10,763 yards (fifth in state history) and needs 440 yards in the playoffs to vault up to third all-time. Grab a seat and keep your eyes on the sky as the aerial battle is sure to please.
FINALS PREDICTION: Grant 35, Rocklin 21.
THE FAVORITE: Central Catholic-Modesto (10-0). The three-time CIF State Bowl champions may be more loaded than ever for the Raiders’ quest for a fourth straight state title. First, Central Catholic will have to get through a loaded playoff field that features two other undefeated teams and a league foe in Oakdale that took the Raiders to the limit in the regular season finale. Senior QB Hunter Petlansky has been on the field or sideline in each of the three state title games, so his experience is a valuable asset. Senior RB Justin Rice again led the team with1,367 yards rushing and 14 TDs while junior Jared Rice (no relation) added 703 yards and 10 scores. As a team, Central Catholic rumbled for 3,174 yards at a 9.3-yards-per-carry clip while running to the end zone 46 times. Senior LB Kekupaa Freehauf (team-best 96 tackles) leads a strong defense that kept opponents in single digits six times, including a pair of shutouts.
CONTENDERS: Oakdale (9-1); Inderkum (10-0); Placer (10-0).
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Manteca (8-2). The sixth-seeded Buffaloes only lost to Valley Oak League foes Central Catholic and Oakdale, who earned the top two seeds in the bracket. Manteca spreads the ball around on offense with 17 rushing TDs and 18 passing TDs scored by 12 different players during the season. Head coach Eric Reis took his team to a NorCal final two years ago, and knows the playoff field.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH: Owen Scott (Placer-Auburn). The versatile senior has found the end zone as a runner, receiver, and kickoff returner. He has rushed for 908 yards and 15 TDs and added 712 receiving yards while scoring 8 TDs through the air with his sure hands and shiftiness in the open field. When they need yards or points, the Hillmen, and QB Marcus Ante in particular, turn to Scott as their primary outlet.
GAME WE WANT TO SEE: Inderkum vs. Oakdale. A rematch of the 2014 D-3 final would also pit the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds. The Mustangs came back from an early deficit in 2014 to deny the Tigers their first SJS title. Inderkum recorded their 10th consecutive 10-win season and is still aiming for a section championship under head coach Terry Stark. Senior RB/LB Derrick Henderson is a team leader both on and off the field. He has rushed for a team-best 802 yards and 14 TDs while adding to his school career tackles record (Henderson has 105 tackles through 10 games, including a season-high 21 in the regular season finale). Oakdale has been a perennial power under coach Trent Merzon with a powerful running attack that has worn down opposing defenses through the years. Senior QB Adam Olsen has added a passing threat that may be necessary to return to the section final for the fifth time in six seasons.
FINALS PREDICTION: Central Catholic 28, Inderkum 24.
THE FAVORITE: Lathrop (6-4). The Spartans have never played in the postseason and had never won more than two games in a season before 2015. But, they got a surprising No. 1 seed after edging Valley Oak League foe Sierra-Manteca 37-35 and routing Kimball-Tracy 40-18 to close out the season with a modest two-game winning streak. Lathrop’s strength of schedule was a huge factor in landing the top seed as the Spartans finished fourth in the VOL behind D-3 playoff contenders Central Catholic, Oakdale, and Manteca.
CONTENDERS: Calaveras (7-3); Liberty Ranch (6-4); Center (6-4).
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Sierra-Manteca (5-5). Despite finishing fifth in the VOL, the Timberwolves have the postseason experience, along with the experience of playing in the VOL, to make some noise in the playoffs. Just last year, Sierra was co-champion of the VOL in 2014 and earned the No. 2 seed in the D-3 field. Junior QB Mark Vicente is capable of leading an offense balanced by the running of Mark Paule, Jr., and senior DE Andrew Guevara is a potent pass rusher on defense who recorded 13 sacks.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH: Mark Paule, Jr. (Sierra). Despite having a down year in 2015, Paule is capable of breaking out and the D-4 playoffs could be the platform to showcase his talents. Last year, he rushed for 2,024 yards and 43 TDs, so there is no question that he can find his way through a defense and to the end zone.
GAME WE WANT TO SEE: Lathrop vs. Liberty Ranch. The Spartans and Hawks could meet in the semifinals in a rematch of a Week 1 battle that saw Lathrop notch the lone fourth-quarter score to spark their first winning season with a 20-14 victory.
FINALS PREDICTION: Center 24, Liberty Ranch 14.
THE FAVORITE: Sonora (9-1). The run-heavy Wildcats can beat you multiple ways on the ground as four players have at least 587 yards and their FB Bradley Canepa has 493 yards rushing and 11 TDs. As a team, Sonora””whose lone loss came in the season opener against Oakdale””has rushed for 3,525 yards and 42 TDs. Sophomore slot-back and strong safety Kane Rogers is a triple threat, rushing for 689 yards and 6 TDs and connecting for TDs on the only two throws he made during the regular season. On defense, Rogers has a team-high 84 tackles and leads the section with 9 interceptions, including one pick-six.
CONTENDERS: Capital Christian-Sacramento (10-0); Ripon (6-4).
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Bear River-Grass Valley (7-3). The Bruins are banged up and reeling after starting the season 7-0, but the postseason could be the reset that co-coaches Scott Savoie and Terry Logue need for the defending D-5 section champions. Senior RB Dave Mastrella has performed well in the absence of injured senior David O’Brien, and the health of sophomore RB Austin Baze will be key to any playoff success. With the Bruins depending more on the pass than usual, junior QB Jason Voter and senior WR Ben O’Lena must connect while avoiding costly turnovers that led to a three-game losing streak to end the regular season.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH: Jack Haney (Capital Christian). The senior two-way star has helped the Cougars to a perfect record with his play at TE and LB. Haney is an excellent blocker and converted 6 of his 16 catches for TDs on offense. On the other side of the ball, the multi-talented star had a team-high 89 tackles and added 3.5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries, and blocked a field goal.
GAME WE WANT TO SEE: Capital Christian vs. Bear River. A battle between last year’s D-5 and D-6 champions in a semifinal would be good theater and great football.
FINALS PREDICTION: Capital Christian 35, Sonora 28.
THE FAVORITE: Hilmar (7-3). The Yellowjackets earned the top seed by reversing their 3-7 record from a year ago. Led by senior QB Daniel Texeira (1,825 yards, 26 TDs) and senior WR Alex Chavez (1,073 yards, 14 TDs), Hilmar was an offensive threat through the air and on the ground with a balance of nearly 1,900 yards passing and almost 2,900 rushing yards. Junior LB Wyatt Amaral led the defense with a team-high 92 tackles. Head coach Frank Marques guided Hilmar to the D-5 title game in 2013 and is searching for his third and the program’s seventh SJS championship.
CONTENDERS: Bradshaw Christian-Sacramento (9-1).
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Ripon Christian (8-2). The Knights have long been talented, but have yet to break through with a title game appearance. Senior WR Jonah Lewis is the team’s offensive star with 852 yards receiving and 15 TDs while junior LB Jake Beukelman has anchored a solid defense with 98 tackles, including 21 tackles for loss.
ONE PLAYER TO WATCH: Phillip White, Jr. (Bradshaw Christian). The senior TE/DE is better know for his pass-rushing abilities than his pass-catching abilities, but he has hauled in 17 receptions for 326 yards and 3 TDs. He is among the section’s sack leader for the second consecutive season with 18 sacks so far after recording 19 as a junior.
GAME WE WANT TO SEE: Hilmar vs. Bradshaw Christian. The Pride have won three SJS championships in the last five years and a 2015 title would be par for the course as Bradshaw Christian has won their titles in each of the last three odd-numbered years. This 1 vs. 2 matchup could provide a great matchup of the Yellowjackets’ passing attack against the Pride’s pass rush.
FINALS PREDICTION: Bradshaw Christian 42, Hilmar 35.