By CHACE BRYSON
Victor Galli’s enthusiasm practically radiated through the phone as he spoke from his office on the morning of Nov. 10.
“We’re recharged,” the Pittsburg High football coach said of his team’s preparation to face Freedom-Oakley in what will be the second ever North Coast Section Open Division playoff game on Saturday, Nov. 19. The first takes place the night before between De La Salle-Concord and Clayton Valley Charter-Concord. “It’s like we just drank a case of Red Bull.”
There’s a lot of factors that go into the excitement shared by Galli, his coaches and his players. First and foremost, the Pirates are getting a chance to avenge their only loss of the season when they visit Freedom. It was a gut-punch 41-38 defeat in what many would consider the best regular season game in the East Bay all season.
Adding to the drama of the rematch will be the fact that the winner will be all but assured a berth into a California Interscholastic Federation Regional Bowl regardless of the result of the NCS final on Dec. 2. NCS officials have stated that if its Open Division winner is selected to play in the CIF Open Div. State Bowl, the runner-up will be the section’s CIF Div. I representative.
All of which sets the stage for a dynamite rematch.
“If people missed missed out on seeing it last time, they shouldn’t this time,” Galli quipped.
Freedom, which finished the regular season No. 3 in the SportStars NorCal Top 20 rankings, trailed by 10 points multiple times in the second half of the teams’ meeting on Oct. 28. The Falcons fought back behind big plays from star running back Ronnie Rivers, and then delivered the game-winning play on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Pierce to Giles Jackson with 1:35 left in the game.
In essence, it fell right in line with the history of the matchup between the two programs. Especially during the era of the two coaches, Galli and Kevin Hartwig, both of whom were hired prior to the 2002 season. Since 2006, the Pirates and Falcons have met 14 times (including two playoff games). And while Pittsburg holds an 11-3 record in those games, six contests were decided by six points or less (four of which were Pirates victories).
“Vic does a great job there,” Hartwig said. “One thing I’ve always admired is how much he’s kept that program and the pride of Pittsburg one and the same. When you play a Pittsburg team, the Pittsburg program doesn’t hate you. Pittsburg hates you. You feel the whole city’s animosity, and I love that.”
Hartwig’s program is in the midst of a historic season, closing out its first undefeated regular season since the school opened in 1996. The Falcons have done it a lot of different ways too.
“We’ve had great chemistry,” the coach said. “There’s been so many ups and downs. Guys have come out of nowhere to start for us (following injuries), and there’s never been a “˜We need to get the ball to this guy.’ We have three, four or five different players who can step in and make a difference in any game.
“That’s been our key. It’s been “˜Who’s going to step up next?'”
Rivers has been the team’s most consistent star, and has earned most of the headlines for it. In the first meeting with Pittsburg, Rivers rushed for 157 yards and two TDs while also completing a 9-yard touchdown pass early in the game and a 97-yard momentum-changing kick return for a score in the third quarter.
“Rivers reminds me of Adrian Peterson,” Galli said. “His lateral quickness is so good. And he’s not little Ronnie Rivers anymore. He’s gotten bigger. His speed once he got outside and turned on the jets was impressive. He might be the best back I’ve seen (Freedom) have.”
Pittsburg has its own home-run hitter at running back. Montaz Thompson was not at 100 percent against the Falcons, having just returned from a high ankle sprain which sidelined him for most of three weeks. He still rushed for more than 100 yards and three touchdowns in the game. He was closer to full health a week later when he blitzed rival Antioch for 231 yards and five scores.
If history has anything to say, Pittsburg under Galli has been awful good in rematch games. Since 2006, Galli’s teams have gone 5-2 in playoff games against teams they lost to in the regular season. The most recent one came last year against Monte Vista-Danville. The Pirates did the same thing against Deer Valley-Antioch in ’06 and ’09 when the Wolverines had entered undefeated, just like Freedom will this year.
“The stars have aligned, I guess,” Galli said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better draw. They’ll be ready. It’s going to be fun.”
NCS OPEN DIVISION – AT A GLANCE
FAVORITE: De La Salle-Concord (9-1). Despite a couple of close calls against San Ramon Valley-Danville and Antioch this season, the Spartans have rounded into form over the last few weeks. That was punctuated in the regular season finale with a definitive 45-17 win over a Monte Vista-Danville that had entered the game unbeaten.
CONTENDERS: Freedom-Oakley (10-0), Pittsburg (9-1) and Clayton Valley Charter-Concord (9-1). It’s the four best teams in the section, so everyone is a contender in this field. Each of these teams has a legitimate path to the title, though any of them would be considered slight underdogs against De La Salle. But the margin is narrow.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Three running backs headline the top three seeds, Kairee Robinson of De La Salle, Ronnie Rivers of Freedom and Montaz Thompson of Pittsburg. All three have the potential to break a momentum-swinging play every time they touch the football. Clayton Valley features an elite defense, led by DE Heikoti Vaisima.
CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTION: De La Salle 31, Pittsburg 21