by Keith Peters
It was an inglorious finish to the 2009 prep football season when Palo Alto bowed out with a 34-6 loss to visiting Bellarmine. The weather was lousy and so were the Vikings as the Bells took their first step toward an eventual second straight Central Coast Section Open Division championship.
So, here we are again. It's Palo Alto against Bellarmine in the CCS Open Division playoffs. However, Paly coach Earl Hansen believes that's the only similarity to last season.
"We have better players," said Hansen, when asked if 2010 will be a repeat of 2009. "We know them (the Bells) better. Offensively, we can move the ball. And, we have better running backs."
And that's not all. Palo Alto was 7-1-2 a year ago while opening the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. The Vikings are now 11-0 and the No. 1 seed while heading into Friday's semifinals at San Jose City College. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Bellarmine (9-2) is seeded No. 5 again while coming off a 38-6 spanking of Oak Grove in last weekend's opening round.
"Oak Grove did not know how to defend them," said Hansen, whose team was ranked No. 14 in the state this week by Cal-Hi Sports.
Hansen believes his team not only knows how to defend the Bells, but that the Vikings are better equipped offensively, too.
Quarterback Christoph Bono did not play in last year's game while recovering from an injury. This season he has completed 130 of 195 passes (.667 percent) for 2,066 yards and 24 touchdowns.
T.J. Braff, who replaced Bono at quarterback for half the season in '09, is back at wide receiver and defensive back. He has caught 15 passes for 172 yards in addition to being the team's leading tackler with 132, 34 of them unassisted.
"T.J. is a weapon now," said Hansen.
Wide receivers Davante Adams and Maurice Williams are more explosive and dangerous this season, as well, on both sides of the ball. Adams has 53 receptions for 941 yards and nine touchdowns, perhaps his biggest coming last week when he caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Bono with 35 seconds left to play to give Paly a 13-10 come-from-behind victory over Mitty in a playoff opener.
Williams has 20 catches for 523 yards and eight scores. He also has two interceptions and has scored 60 points while Adams has 54. They've combined for 114 of Paly's 336 points this season, an average of 30.5 per game.
Paly's running backs have been equally as productive. Junior Dre Hill has a team-leading 821 yards on 106 carries (a 7.75 average) and junior B.J. Boyd has gained 515 yards on 60 hauls (an 8.58 average). Hill has scored a team-high 72 points with Boyd adding 36. Neither player was in Paly's backfield last season against Bellarmine.
"We feel more prepared," Hansen said of Friday's rematch, "and they're not as good as last year. But, they're still very athletic."
The run-oriented Bells are led by senior breakaway threat Kris Olugbode, who had 124 yards and three touchdowns against Oak Grove. Bellarmine averages 217 yards rushing per game, but only 67 passing.
"They haven't changed a bit," Hansen said of the Bells' style of play. "They want everyone to adjust to them."
Hansen said the key to Friday's game will be pass protection. If Bono is given time to find a receiver, odds favor he will. In last year's game, Hansen said Braff didn't get protected that well.
Since Bellarmine plays in a league with teams that primarily run, Hansen is banking on the fact the Bells haven't faced too many passers like Bono. In fact, the last time Bellarmine faced a good thrower (Mitty's Kyle Boehm), the Bells dropped a 30-27 decision on Nov. 5.
Mitty gained 153 yards through the air and 258 on the ground in that victory, proving the Bells' vulnerability on defense.
Now, all Palo Alto needs is to take advantage.The Vikings are one win away from tying the school record for most single-season victories (12), set in 2006 when Paly won the Open Division title and advanced to the Division II state finals.
Palo Alto is hoping to do that again, but will need 13 wins to accomplish that.
The Vikings kept their school-record winning streak alive last week against Mitty, in a game that came down to the final play.
Faced with a fourth-and-21 situation, the Vikings lined up for the all-or-nothing play before Mitty called time.
Hansen was able to see what defense the Monarchs were in and changed the play, moving Braff as a receiver on the left to tandem with Adams. With Williams on the right side, Hansen knew there was no way Mitty could double cover any one of his receivers, given its defensive alignment.
"We changed it (the play) so they couldn't double our outside guy," said Hansen, "and then Christoph threw a beautiful pass."
With only single coverage, Adams was able to get free in the end zone and made the catch with plenty of room to spare.
"He (Adams) came down with two feet in(bounds), and you only need one," Hansen said. "He was in by at least a foot."
"It was the best throw ever and the greatest catch I've ever made," said Adams, who had five catches for 78 yards. "With the people we have, we can make anything happen. I know he had the confidence to make the throw and I was waiting for it."
Eighth-seeded Mitty (6-4-1) had one last possession, but Paly defensive back Gabe Landa made an interception and allowed the Vikings to run out the clock.
Palo Alto (and the rainy weather) limited Mitty to a minus-3 yards passing and 106 yards rushing. Paly finished with 247 total yards, 155 coming on the ground.
Michael Cullen had 11 tackles and Braff added 10 while Kevin Anderson and Tori Prati each had a sack, with Prati recovering a fumble to spark Paly's fine defensive effort.
In the CCS Division IV semifinals on Saturday, No. 2 Sacred Heart Prep (9-2) will host No. 6 Menlo School (8-3) at noon. TheGators are coming off a 49-20 romp over No. 7 Seaside while the Knights upset No. 3 San Lorenzo Valley, 36-14.
"We're ready to play Menlo as we would any team," said SHP defender Hunter Shaw. "We'd play as hard as we could no matter what. It's the playoffs."
Sacred Heart and Menlo met two weeks ago in the Valpo Bowl, with the Gators coming away with a 35-7 victory.•