Joe Davidson

Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs no time to be conservative

One of the players to look for in the playoffs: Ryan Robards of Elk Grove
One of the players to look for in the playoffs: Ryan Robards of Elk Grove

It’s an accomplishment to reach the Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs. But winning in the playoffs to extend the season is an entirely different game.

The games become more intense, with the sense of finality often the X-factor when nerves and pressure situations collide. Grant coach Mike Alberghini has for years insisted “nothing beats varsity playing experience.” His Pacers have won seven section titles since 1991, but they’ve never repeated, though Grant’s veteran roster certainly appears positioned to do so this year.

The playoffs feature 78 teams in seven divisions, the second-largest field of the 10 sections in the state. Fifty-six of these teams were in the postseason last year.

All seven section champions from last season return, including top seeds Folsom in Division I, Grant in Division II and Stone Ridge Christian of Merced in Division VII. Central Catholic of Modesto, which won the Division IV title last season, is this year’s top seed in Division III, and Capital Christian, which won the Division VI title in 2014, is the second seed in Division V.

A closer look at this year’s playoff themes and trends:

What’s the ultimate prize? – When a team wins a section title, they gain the memories and a blue banner to spruce up the gym or trophy case.

There’s a bonus this year: All seven section champions will compete for Northern California Regional Championships on Dec. 11 and 12.

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Guts matter – Rather than playing conservative, the playoffs are the time to go with what works – and for the jugular – coaches say.

Antelope coach Matt Ray follows that philosophy. He went for a two-point conversion to beat Cosumnes Oaks and called a trick play to beat Del Campo en route to the school’s first 10-0 regular season and the second seed in Division II.

“You can’t be afraid to win at this level,” said Ray, who pointed out he has a quarterback in Temple-bound senior Montel Aaron who can pull off such deeds.

Underdogs have a shot – The higher seeds always face the most pressure.

Elk Grove finished fourth in the Delta League in 1984 but won the Division I title with four road wins. And Del Oro won the Division III title as an 11th seed in 2011, winning all the games on the road.

The biggest underdog this season is Kennedy (8-2), which has its best record since 1974 and is in the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Kennedy, revived under coach Matt Costa after a 28-game losing streak just three years ago, is the 16th seed in Division I. The Cougars play Friday at Folsom, which last lost to a section team in 2011 and has state-leading winning streaks of 26 overall and 41 for the regular season.

Who’s most due to win a title? – Inderkum, which has played in three section finals under coach Terry Stark since 2008, is 10-0 and back for another run in Division III. Inderkum features skilled wing-T players, led by linebacker/running back Derrick Henderson.

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Quarterback control – The playoffs feature some gunslingers who put up impressive numbers, including Oak Ridge’s Ian Book (2,429 yards and 25 touchdown passes), Del Campo’s Ben Purcell (3,088, 37), Whitney’s Hunter Rodrigues (2,851, 42) and Sacramento’s Caden Voges (2,278, 33) in Division II; Elijah Garcia (2,680, 24) of Lincoln and Brent Schaeffer (2,075, 24) of Vista del Lago in Division III; and Jake Jeffrey (2,377, 31) of Folsom in Division I.

Ground and pound – The playoffs also feature the section’s top four rushers: Highlands’ Isaiah Tenette (2,186 yards, 31 touchdowns, plus 1,844 yards and 20 touchdowns passing) in Division V; Grant’s Deshawn Collins (2,049, 28) and Burbank’s Michael Roots (1,940, 27) in Division II; and Elk Grove’s Ryan Robards (1,927, 30) in Division I.

Speed matters, too – Some of the fastest players in the state will be featured, including Cosumnes Oaks running back Dante Davis, who rushed for a school-record 328 yards in last week’s 42-21 victory over Ponderosa; Rocklin running back Evyn Holtz, who often soars into the end zone to cap plays; all-purpose Jamarri Jackson of Christian Brothers; Burbank running back and triple-option threat Michael Roots; Inderkum’s Jimmie Johnson, who scores on handoffs, receptions and on special teams; and Del Oro wide receiver and returner Trey Udoffia, who has committed to Colorado.

High-profile acts – There will be several national recruits, too. Lineman Jake Capra (Oregon) is a force in Placer’s wing-T in Division III; defensive back/quarterback Lamar Jackson of Franklin, who has visited Utah, Michigan and Nebraska, leads the darkhorse Wildcats in Division I; and Folsom two-way lineman Jonah Williams (Alabama), considered the playoffs’ top talent, played his best last season in the playoffs.

Joe Davidson breaks down some Sacramento area names of note for The Bee's Coach of the Year honors. Keep in mind that playoff success greatly determines the final outcome.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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