Long Beach Poly is still playing football this December, and Christmas came early for the Jackrabbits and Southern California football fans. Usually the CIF State Regional Championship games–which come between the much-hyped CIF-SS title games and the CIF State championships–are a bit of a letdown, pitting Southern Section teams against City Section or San Diego Section programs.
This year? No letdown Poly’s showdown in the CIF State Division 1A Regional Final against Gardena Serra will be the biggest game in California when it kicks off Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at Serra. The game is sold out and will be televised on Spectrum, with live updates provided here at the562.org. The winner advances to next Saturday’s Division 1A state championship at Saddleback College at 4 p.m. against the winner of Pittsburg and Liberty Bakersfield.
“It’s exciting,” said Poly coach Stephen Barbee. “The kids wanted this game–we couldn’t ask for a better matchup. It’s going to be a great game, very competitive–it always is. We’re excited about playing in a game of this magnitude.”
Poly and Serra’s last six meetings have been decided by one score or less. The two teams have played twice this calendar year, with Poly winning 27-21 in overtime in the Spring and Serra winning 28-27 in the first game of the Fall season.
Both teams have reason to be optimistic about Saturday’s matchup.
On Serra’s side, the Cavaliers didn’t play well against Poly in their first meeting, with several wide-open two-handed drops by their usually vaunted receiving core. The Cavs have some key players back and have improved a lot over the season, and are fresh off the CIF-SS Division 3 title.
On Poly’s side, the Jackrabbits team that took the field at the start of the season bears almost no resemblance to the team that just won the CIF-SS Division 4 title. Poly was without several defensive starters due to injury and transfer eligibility, and was still develop an offensive identity.
The key for the Jackrabbits defensively is trying to slow down Texas commit QB Maalik Murphy. Poly got virtually no pressure on Murphy in the teams’ first meeting as he threw for 341 yards and three scores, rushing for a fourth. With an improved defensive backfield from that game, Poly will need to cover long enough for their front to get a push against Murphy. Running backs Kai Honda and Cincere Rhaney average seven yards a carry and will need to be contained as well–Murphy gets a lot of attention, but Serra runs it more than twice as often as they throw it.
Daylen Austin could be a big factor for the Jackrabbits in this one, not only in the defensive backfield but also in kick return. He and Serra’s star recruit Rodrick Pleasant are among the most electric return men on the West Coast.
Offensively, Poly needs to be able to run the ball to set up possession passing and more downfield plays. Both teams have evolved a lot in what they run on both sides of the ball since their first meeting, and both teams are well-coached and capable of making multiple adjustments throughout the game–this should be by far the most fun matchup to watch this playoffs.
“They’re very well coached, they’ve got athletes, ultimately it will come down to executing and who’s the last one to make a play,” said Barbee.
The last one to make a play will more than likely be headed to the state championship game in a week.