It was an anxious Sunday for coaches curious about who they drew as CIF Northern California Regional opponents, and then it was an all-out rush to research team tendencies, seek out film and prepare.
The element of the unknown adds a layer of intrigue to the playoffs as coaches scramble while feeling the time is short and the challenge daunting.
“Not knowing who you play is frustrating, and there were five or six teams we heard we could play,” Placer coach Joey Montoya said. “You don’t want to prepare for the wrong team because then you waste time. Then you find out and get after it.”
Placer (12-1) won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship on Nov. 25 and was idle until the rest of the section champions were crowned last weekend. The Hillmen travel to the Central Coast on Friday to play Salinas (11-2) in a Division IV-AA contest.
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Folsom (14-0) didn’t have to wait nearly as long. It won the Division I section title on Saturday afternoon, and within 20 hours learned it would host Central of Fresno (12-1) on Friday for the Division I-AA championship.
“We heard it could be a few different teams, then you find out and then you look into that team,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said. “It’s kind of fun.”
Granite Bay had an even shorter wait. The Grizzlies (12-2) won the Division II section title late Saturday night and mere hours later found out they would host Pittsburg (8-2) in a Division I-A final Saturday.
Bear River, like Placer, faced a torturous wait of more than a week. The Bruins (10-3) will travel to northern Humboldt County on Saturday to play Fortuna (12-2).
The matchups feature a mix of storied programs, teams on the rise and newcomers to the stage.
With section championships dating to the 1970s, Placer has more of a storied history than Salinas, which this season had its most wins in decades.
Salinas upset unbeaten Milpitas 25-18 in the Central Coast Section Division I Open Division after falling 27-0 to the same team in September.
While Folsom was basking in the program’s sixth section title this decade and fifth trip to a NorCal final, Central hoisted its first trophy in the 87-year history of the school after beating Buchanan 29-7 to win the Central Section Division I title.
Central’s loss was at nationally renown De La Salle in a competitive game, 49-30. It was an eye-opener for Central, much like De La Salle was for Folsom when the Spartans derailed 14-0 Bulldogs seasons in 2012 and 2013 in the only two CIF NorCal Open finals ever played. The CIF deemed that the Open Division final is best suited for the private school superpowers (De La Salle will play national No. 1 Mater Dei on Dec. 16 at Sacramento State for the season’s grand finale).
Central linebacker Jacob Hollins told The Fresno Bee, “De La Salle helped us realize how physical and competitive a top-tier program is.”
Granite Bay and Pittsburg are familiar with each other. The teams played nonleague games from 2009-13. Granite Bay won four, some of them thrillers. The loss was in 2012, in overtime, and Granite Bay recovered by winning the CIF Division I state title.
Pittsburg’s losses this season were to nationally ranked Centennial and De La Salle, and it beat Serra of San Mateo, which is competing for a NorCal title.
“Pittsburg is a very good team,” Granite Bay coach Jeff Evans said. “They are big, physical and fast, so they will be a huge test for us. Luckily for us, we have played against other great teams this year, so our guys are not intimidated by what they see on film, and we are used to having to prepare to play at a high level.”
And some programs share similar heartache.
Fortuna was inspired to win its first section title in 17 years to honor a teammate who cannot compete. Bailey Foley suffered a stroke on the field in the team’s season opener at Cardinal Newman in Santa Rosa.
Bear River continues to be inspired by Toran Maronic, who suffered a head injury in a passing-league tournament before last season, ending his football career. Maronic’s brother, sophomore Tre Maronic, is a key player for the Bruins as a receiver and running back.