There was an electricity in the air at Long Beach Poly and Millikan’s football practices this week, as the two top teams in the city prepare to meet tonight at 7 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Stadium. While the Jackrabbits (1-3) and Rams (2-3) are both on the wrong end of .500, there’s little doubt that this meeting is as close to a championship game as the Moore League is likely to have this year, even with the game taking place so early in the season.
“We’ve had a real good week of practice,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “Romeo (Pellum) does a lot of great things with his team and they’ve got some very talented players–they’re always one step away from making a big play.”
It’s been a rocky start to the year for a Poly team with high expectations. Their 1-3 start included lopsided losses to Mission Viejo and Corona Centennial that were ego-bruisers–Barbee said his focus has been on helping his team move past those losses to think about the Moore League and the CIF-SS playoffs.
“From a team standpoint, we’re together, we had a long talk on Saturday,” said Barbee. “Now it’s just go out there and play.”
The bad news for the Jackrabbits is that a combination of transfer eligibility and injuries will keep them from fielding a full lineup for one additional week. They’re likely to get four starters back for next week’s game against Wilson, and will be without two key linemen this week as well as linebacker Ike Mikaele, who was the team’s leading tackler when he left Poly’s game against Leuzinger with injury.
On the other sideline is a Millikan team that is more talented than probably any of the Jackrabbits’ top challengers over the last decade. Poly hasn’t lost a game on the field in the Moore League since 2009, and prior to that year hadn’t lost one since 1995. But this year’s Rams team is the most talented challenger in the league since Thadd MacNeal’s Lakewood team that unseated Poly 12 years ago.
Millikan features legitimate Division 1-offered studs in quarterback Myles Jackson, and skill players Ryan Pellum and Tacario Davis, an Arizona commit. The Moore League hasn’t often had multiple teams carrying a trio of Pac-12 caliber players, and coach Romeo Pellum is aware that the engine in his car has a lot of horsepower.
“I think we’re a tough cover for anyone because if you take Ryan away, you have to worry about Tacario, or Jhae Drummer who’s a Division 1 guy, or Angelo Miranda, or Matt Martinez, all of whom have had breakout games,” he said. “So it’s not just about one matchup, we want to make people pick their poison.”
The only thing stopping the hype around this game from going runaway train status is that the Rams are sitting at a 2-3 record, after losing a pair of close games in part due to penalties and other mental miscues. That’s been a point of emphasis for Pellum over the last month, and the progress is obvious–Millikan was a completely different team from their season opener against Santa Ana (with seven personal fouls) to last week’s game against La Mirada.
“It’s pretty obvious, everyone saw, we took ourselves out of a couple games,” said Pellum. “We could have been 4-1 right now, and the kids understand that. For me, it’s the balance between being a coach, but also understanding what these kids go through. I’m close in age to them and I’ve been through a lot of what they’ve been through. I was a kid that got personal fouls, I was a kid that got suspended. I took a slow approach, I didn’t just go hard and shut them off. We started in practice. Now when they make a mistake or get a penalty in practice, they’re held accountable–and you see them holding each other accountable to that.”
For tonight’s game, the question is largely going to come down to Poly’s pass rush. If Jackson has time to survey the field, Millikan will move the ball, and have the potential to bust big plays, something Poly has struggled to contain in all four games so far. If the Jackrabbits and defensive linemen Donovan Poe and Phoenix Tusa are living in the backfield, it’s going to be hard for the Rams to make plays downfield.
For Poly offensively, this is the week to start showing a true identity. They’re going to split quarterbacks Shea Kuykendall and Darius Curry again, and will need to see more plays downfield from both of them. With a banged up offensive line they’re also going to need a big game from running back Devin Samples–Poly has beaten Millikan the last two years by controlling the line of scrimmage and the clock. If they can’t do that this week they’ll be in trouble.
Whether the Rams make history tonight or not, this evening’s game is a celebration of Long Beach football with two talented teams boasting several college prospects. Both coaches were fired up about it.
“We don’t put Poly on a pedestal,” said Pellum. “Win, lose, or draw they’re a regular team–their kids are 15 to 18 years old, just like ours. So I’m not putting extra pressure on our kids, I’m just excited for them, and I know our kids are excited for the game too.”