There’s history in the air and history on the line in La Canada tonight as Long Beach Poly takes a trip to St. Francis for the CIF Southern Section Division 4 championship game. The Jackrabbits are trying to bring home their 20th CIF-SS title ever, as well as the school’s 127th in any sport. There’s no doubt coming into the game that the Jackrabbits are the favorites, and there’s no doubt that they’re facing their best opponent of the postseason.
“This will be by far the best offensive line and team we have faced in the playoffs, and we have our work cut out for us,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee.
Defensively, the task is obvious for the Jackrabbits: try to bottle up San Diego State commit Max Garrison, who has rushed for almost 1,800 yards and 30 touchdowns this season. Garrison is a hard-runner who won’t shy away from the Jackrabbits’ physical front. QB Jack Jacobs has only thrown for 10 touchdowns this year, but he’s put up almost 2,000 yards in the air and run for 45 yards a game this season as well.
The biggest threat St. Francis carries isn’t on the field but on the sideline though. Head coach Dean Harrington has made a career out of beating teams he wasn’t supposed to and, according to Bally Sports broadcaster Greg Biggins, he’s “the real deal.” His Knights offense is certainly more balanced than the teams Poly has been accustomed to facing this playoffs–they have four receivers with over 20 receptions and none with more than 40, and they’ve proven they can throw the ball when they need to.
“The running back is an incredible playmaker, and we have to make sure he’s not running wild tonight,” said Barbee.
The Jackrabbits will need their defensive backs led by Daylen Austin and Donovan Turner to remain solid in man-coverage, something the Knights are likely to try and exploit at some point tonight. Most importantly they need a defensive front led by lineman Wendell “Wowo” Moe, Donovan Poe, Phoenix Tusa, and Jeremiah Fort to stand up to the Knights’ big offensive line. If they can do that and let linebackers Jalen Johnson, Ike Mikaele, Noodles Cason, and Dylan Williams come up and make plays, they’ll have won the first round of the chess match.
Offensively for Poly, the question is can they continue to establish the run? Devin Samples is having a monster year and Poly’s offensive line keeps getting better, with Tyson Ruffins and Nathan Samoa among the key contributors. If they can get some push, Poly’s night will get a lot easier. Where the Jackrabbits struggled in the first quarter last week against Cypress was going for big plays too early in the passing game. They’re at their best when they establish the run and let QB Shea Kuykendall distribute possession-range passes to open up the deep game to speedsters Jason Robinson and Nick Kelly, as well as the long reach of Tyson Bordeaux.
“We can’t worry about the big plays, those are going to come from us executing our offense,” said Barbee.
The fight will be up front on both sides of the ball–St. Francis has been reliant on a big and physical two-way line that has run the ball and stopped the run so far these playoffs.
The Jackrabbits have been pretty good these playoffs as well (lol). They’ve won by 28, 46, and 35 points, and just defeated Cypress in the semifinals 35-0 for the program’s first playoff shutout since the legendary 2-0 win over Orange Lutheran in the 2007 semis.
This Poly team is playing in a different division, and the team has been making a statement on the field about whether they feel they belong there or not. Tonight, they have a chance to put that conversation behind them and start talking about history.
“This is a football game, the field is the same size, the quarters are the same length,” said Barbee. “As a coach I just worry about are they on point in practice? Are they asking the right questions in film? We just want to continually improve and we’ve been doing that.”
If the Jackrabbits win tonight they will advance to the CIF State Regionals next week, with those draws set to be announced on Sunday.