Down to a gritty, resilient, talented two.
Last month, 78 teams of the 195 that compete in the Sac-Joaquin Section entered the football playoffs, spanning seven divisions.
This section is the second largest of the 10 that comprise the California Interscholastic Federation, behind the 581-school Southern Section. Now the final weekend of the high school football season is here and just two section teams remain.
Folsom (15-0) will take the short trek down Highway 50 to play Helix of La Mesa (13-1) on Friday at 8 p.m. at Sacramento State in the CIF State Division I-AA championship. On Saturday at 6 p.m., Placer (13-1) will travel to Los Angeles to take on Crenshaw (11-3) in the Division IV-AA championship.
Entering the season, Folsom anticipated a championship run, but, given the team youth, the Bulldogs figured they might land back in the state finals in 2018 as experience generally wins out this time of year.
But Folsom has been on something of an accelerated learning path this season with a team that starts seven seniors coming of age amid a taxing schedule and facing programs eager to knock off the best.
“And we still haven’t played our best game yet,” Folsom coach Kris Richardson said.
Folsom seeks its third state trophy this decade. The Bulldogs won a Division II title in 2010, with quarterback Dano Graves leading the charge of a 14-1 team, then in 2014 with Jake Browning at the helm for a 16-0 team that stormed to the Division I-AA title.
Now it’s junior Kaiden Bennett at the controls, and the dual-threat quarterback has sparkled to the tune of 4,109 yards passing and 53 touchdowns to go with 1,079 yards rushing and 14 scores. His top target, and one of the best players in the country, is receiver Joe Ngata. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior has 76 catches for 1,681 yards and 25 scores. And he can run the ball, return it on special teams and punt it.
Helix is the top team in the San Diego area, with big-name alums such as Reggie Bush and Alex Smith. And the Highlanders are no newcomer to this CIF fun, either, having beaten Del Oro for the Division II championship in 2011. Helix is enormously talented, starting with UC Davis-commit quarterback Carson Baker, sophomore running back Elelyon Noa and playmakers in the secondary who have 17 interceptions.
Placer coaches also wondered if the Hillmen were not a year away from a real title run. The program starts four seniors, yet nothing seems to rattle the Hillmen, led by energized yet poised coach Joey Montoya.
The Hillmen trailed 21-0 and 27-7 at Salinas in the NorCal Regional, then rallied to win 43-42 in overtime, making for one joyous bus ride home to Auburn.
Now a program that won its first league championship in 1903 and was ranked No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports at Division II following the 1977 and 1980 seasons – long before the CIF introduced the state playoff format in 2006 – seeks the biggest prize against a program that is no stranger to the biggest stage in this state.
“Really excited for our team,” Montoya said. “We just keep it going.”
Crenshaw won eight CIF State Division I basketball championships in the 1980s and ’90s, downing Jesuit in 1992 and ’93 in the finals, and its football team lost 28-14 to nationally renown De La Salle in the CIF State Open finals in 2009.
So why is Crenshaw now in Division IV-AA? The school’s enrollment has dropped from 2,085 students in 2008 to 1,466 four years ago and to 1,222 now. The school has not been ranked, state or national, since going 14-1 in 2009. The Cougars have won six Los Angeles City Section titles, all since 1992.
And why does one-loss Placer have to travel to a three-loss team? In simple terms, it is tied to the CIF’s effort for state finals balance.
With the CIF Open Division through II-AA levels held at Sacramento State (five games), the III-AA through VI-A games will be hosted by Southern California teams.
The Sac State games are Cajon vs. Serra of San Mateo in Division II-AA on Friday at 4 p.m., before the Folsom-Helix contest. On Saturday, the Grace Berthren vs. Saint Francis II-A game at noon will be followed by Narbonne vs. Pittsburg in I-A at 4 p.m. and capped by national No. 1 Mater Dei against De La Salle in the Open Division at 8 p.m.
This is the last of a four-year CIF contract with Sac State. The CIF will announce Friday which venue will host the upper-division games starting next season. If it’s a Southern California venue, then the smaller division state title games will be hosted by Northern California schools.
Granite Bay, Bear River, Sutter fall – Saturday was not kind to three regional programs who powered to section championships but stalled out in NorCal Regional finals.
Granite Bay, the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champion, lost at home to North Coast Section power Pittsburg 37-14 in the Division I-A final, succumbing to the Pirates’ speed and big-play ability. The Grizzlies had a big bounce-back season after winning four games in 2016.
Bear River, the SJS D-IV champion, lost at Fortuna 34-20 in Division V-A, a year after going 3-7 in the program’s first losing season in 28 years and a month after needing an overtime win in Week 10 just to extend the season.
Sutter, the 13-time Northern Section champion, fell at unbeaten Half Moon Bay 28-7 in Division III-A.
CIF State Football Championship Bowl Games
Mater Dei vs. De La Salle at Sacramento State, Saturday, 8 p.m.
Folsom vs. Helix at Sacramento State, Friday, 8 p.m.
Pittsburgh vs. Narbonne at Sacramento State, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Cajon vs. Serra at Sacramento State, Friday, 4 p.m.
Grace Brethren vs. Saint Francis at Sacramento State, Saturday, Noon
Bishop Diego vs. Shasta at Santa Barbara City College, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Half Moon Bay at Steele Canyon, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Placer at Crenshaw, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Milpitas at Southwest EC, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Golden West vs. McClymonds at Visalia Community Stadium, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Katella vs. Fortuna at Glover Stadium, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Orange vs. Strathmore at El Modena High, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Vincent Memorial vs. Galileo at Calexico High, Saturday, 6 p.m.