By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
It was only a few weeks ago that the Palo Alto Knights' Jr. Midgets' football team suffered its first loss of the season. The setback came long-time rival Oak Grove, a stinging 22-8 setback.
Afterward, Palo Alto coach Mike Piha promised his team would be better the next time the teams met.
"We probably watched film of that game almost every night for three weeks," said Piha, who used that time with his coaches to devise a way to beat Oak Grove when the teams faced off Sunday in the American Youth Football NorCal Regional Championship game at Oak Grove High.
The game plan worked perfectly as the Knights rolled to a 24-6 triumph and qualified for the AYF National Championships in Orlando, Fla. Piha will be making a seventh trip to the national playoffs and the fourth straight with most of his players who have come up through the ranks.
Palo Alto improved to 10-1. Oak Grove, which fell to 10-1, received a wild-card berth into the national playoffs on Monday. The Knights are planning to leave for Florida on Nov. 30 with games beginning on Dec. 2.
"This was one of the signature victories for our program," said Piha. "We have not dominated an Oak Grove team like we did -- ever. The players played an almost perfect game. They were confident and executed on offense, defense and special teams."
In the first meeting between the teams, Oak Grove had one player who ran roughshod over the Knights while scoring three touchdowns. Piha had Jordan Schilling shadow that player wherever he went and helped hold him to under 30 yards rushing.
Oak Grove did score first, completing a 98-yard touchdown on a broken play in the first quarter. That, however, was all the offense the home team could muster as Palo Alto's defense rose to the challenge.
Palo Alto bounced back from the early deficit and scored as quarterback Jake Rittman fired a TD pass to Ty Cox following a 73-yard run by Ethan Stern set up the score that gave the Knights an 8-6 halftime lead.
"When we took that halftime lead, it really changed the momentum of the game," Piha said. "It was the first time Oak Grove had been behind all season. You could see how frustrated they were. They just folded after that."
The second half was all Palo Alto as Rittman hit Ben Cleasby for a 27-yard TD and Stern scored on a six-yard run. The Knights also converted all three two-point PATS on kicks by Luca Zaharias.
The Knights' defense held Oak Grove to 23 yards rushing, its lowest output of the season. Oak Grove also came into the game averaging 30 points an outing. Palo Alto's defense was led by Ty Wilcox, Schilling, Stern, Cleasby and had interceptions by Logan Johnson and Rittman in the second half when Oak Grove was forced to pass in an attempt to catch up.
"They couldn't run against us," Piha said. "And, the revenge factor was there."
Palo Alto will be looking to reach the AYF championship game for the first time since 2002. He expects the Knights to receive a No. 2 of 3 seed but knows the competition will be tough. The program that eliminated Palo Alto last season from Mesa, Ariz., will be making a return visit to Orlando.
"We're much more diversified this year," Piha explained. "We have three solid running backs, a good quarterback and good receivers."
The Knights also have the depth and talent where only six-seven players are playing both ways. In previous years, Piha often had 11 players going both ways.
Piha figures he has 23 players who'll be playing with the Knights for the final time before heading off to high school next year. Thus, the time to bring home the program's first national title is now.
Said Piha: "It's about time we bring one home to Palo Alto."