By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online
One way to look at the Central Coast Section football playoffs is that it's a new season, a chance to correct the flaws from earlier games and perhaps meet or exceed expectations.
Palo Alto is not exactly in that situation. The Vikings won last year's CIF Division I state championship game to cap a 14-0 season, the most single-season victories in school history.
Thus, as the 2011 CCS playoffs get under way Friday, Palo Alto is in a unique position as a defending state champion. Yes, there is a title to defend.
The Vikings, however, are 8-2 and not 10-0 like last season. So, chances are, a third trip to the state finals are not likely. Paly would have to win a second straight CCS Open Division title just to be in the conversation.
That title defense starts right away as the No. 4-seeded Vikings play host to No. 5 Leland (9-1) on Friday at 7 p.m.
In other CCS openers, No. 2 Menlo-Atherton (7-3) will host No. 7 Santa Clara (8-2) in Division I and No. 7 Menlo School (7-3) will tangle with No. 2 Carmel (10-0) at Pacific Grove High in Division IV action, also at 7 p.m.
On Saturday, No. 4 Sacred Heart Prep (7-3) will open defense of its Division IV title by hosting No. 5 Scotts Valley (8-2) at 1 p.m.
Palo Alto, meanwhile, heads into its opener against a team it has never faced in the postseason. The Vikings are 20-12 in the section playoffs while the Chargers are 24-19-1 -- a total of 76 games -- and yet the teams haven't met since 1973 when Paly held on for a 7-6 nonleague decision.
Both teams are quite a bit more explosive since that last meet. The Vikings are averaging a CCS-leading 40.2 points a game while the Chargers aren't far behind at 37.9.
Neither team has played a common opponent this season and so scouting, game films and chats with coaches who played against either team likely came in handy during this week of preparation.
Palo Alto offers up a balanced offense that averages 187.3 yards rushing and 168.2 passing. The senior running back tandem of Dre Hill (126 carries for 824 yards and 12 TDs) and Morris Gates-Mouton (62 for 567 and nine TDs) has been more than a pleasant surprise. Senior B.J. Boyd, moved to wide receiver in the second game of the season, has responded to his new position with 24 catches for 843 yards and 13 scores. Boyd is equally dangerous returning kickoffs, bringing seven back for touchdowns, of which he has 20 this season.
Sophomore Keller Chryst has adjusted well to his new team and teammates after transferring from the East Coast. He has settled in at quarterback and completed 81 of 154 passes for 1,640 yards and 20 touchdowns, with just five interceptions.
The offensive line of left tackle Michael Lyzwa, left guard Tory Prati, center Spencer Drazovich, right guard Sam Moses, right tackle Chris Ramirez and tight end Austin Braff
has been a big part of the running game's success.
Palo Alto's defense, which was last season's star while holding opponents to under 10 points a game in 14 outings, once again is doing the job with just 17.4 points allowed.
The defense must contain Leland quarterback Jason Habash (126 for 201 for 1,943 yards and 22 TDs) and running backs Kenny Portera (91 carries for 751 yards, eight TDs) and Chris Santini (79 for 716 and 12 TDs). Portera also has caught 46 passes for 716 yards and 12 TDs and is an obvious person the Vikings need to contain, along with Habash.
When the Vikings have struggled this season, it has been defending the pass.
Palo Alto opted up to the Open Division after Gates-Mouton and Hill combined for 261 rushing yards and six touchdowns in a 62-35 victory over host Milpitas last week to clinch a third straight SCVAL De Anza Division title.
Palo Alto then had to survive a coin flip with Terra Nova, which won the PAL Bay Division title and had the same amount of power points (28.5). The Vikings won the flip and the Tigers ended up with the No. 7 seed and a road game against No. 2 Bellarmine -- which could have been Paly's fate just as easily.
While Palo Alto escaped the Bells in the first round, top-seeded Oak Grove (9-1) possibly awaits in the semifinals the following weekend. Bellarmine is the likely choice to emerge out of the top bracket and reach the championship game on Dec. 2 at San Jose City College.
Menlo-Atherton, meanwhile, should have little problem against Santa Clara on Friday night in a battle between the Bears and the Bruins. It will be M-A's first-ever CCS home game under the lights. M-A will have to be better than it was in a 16-3 nonleague win over host Woodside last week.
Menlo-Atherton and Santa Clara have never met in the postseason. This will be the Bruins' 10th CCS appearance (2-7) while the Bears (10-11) are making their 22nd.
Menlo, meanwhile, must find a way to stop an explosive Carmel team that is averaging 55.4 points a game. The teams have met once before, in the 2008 CCS Division IV championship game. The Padres won that, 56-35.
Menlo earned an at-large berth into the playoffs with a 26-0 nonleague win over Sacred Heart Prep in the annual Valpo Bowl last Friday. Knights' sophomore quarterback Jack Heneghan threw for 169 yards and ran for 92 more to lead Menlo.
Sacred Heart Prep and Scotts Valley met earlier this season, with the then-healthy Gators posting a 31-15 nonleague victory on Sept. 23. Since then, much has changed.
Scotts Valley is averaging 53.1 points a game in its past three outings while SHP struggled after losing quarterback Jack Larson, senior running back Will Morgan and others to injury.
Should the Gators survive, they'll likely have to face top seed Palma (8-1-1) in the semifinals.