Palo Alto opens the Central Coast Section Open Division I football playoffs Friday at 7 p.m. at Hod Ray Field against Los Gatos, the same team the Vikings played and beat 35-10 just two weeks ago on Oct. 26.
“It’s always tough playing a team twice a week apart,’’ Palo Alto coach Nelson Gifford said. “Is it a good thing for either team or does it put us both at a disadvantage? I don’t know.’’
The CCS seeds teams for the playoffs according to a points system. Once St. Ignatius defeated Bellarmine the final week of the regular season, eliminating the Bells from the playoffs, Palo Alto was expected to receive the No. 2 seed in Open Division I behind Wilcox and play Milpitas in the opening round. Paly beat Milpitas 41-13 on Sept. 21.
“We thought playing Milpitas would not be a terrible matchup, having played them so early in the first league game,’’ Gifford said.
But at the seeding meeting on Sunday it was ruled that Paly would not receive a point for beating a league champion in McClymonds and Menlo-Atherton wound up being seeded No. 2 with Paly No. 3. M-A and Los Gatos had been studying film, preparing to play each other, but then they had to switch gears as well.
“It’s going to be interesting how each team adjusts,’’ Gifford said.
Palo Alto under Gifford in his first year as coach has made a dramatic turnaround, going from 3-8 last season to 9-1 and Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division champions. Gifford installed a modified spread offense that has maximized the talents of quarterback Jackson Chryst, who has thrown for 2,205 yards and a CCS-leading 31 touchdowns, as opposed to six interceptions, and wide receiver Jamir Shepard, who has 48 catches for CCS-bests of 1,074 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Not that the offense is all pass. Running back Aiden Chang has rushed for 1,051 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Paly had relatively close wins over McClymonds (29-20) and St. Ignatius (21-14) in the first three weeks of the season. In the other seven wins the margin of victory has been more than 36 points per game, a testament both to a prolific offense and an underrated defense that has shut down opposing offenses and gotten better as the season unfolded.
“People talk about our offense, but our defense has played crazy good, everyone around the ball, taking the ball away,’’ Gifford said. “Our defense definitely fuels our offense.’’
Palo Alto averages 37 points per game on offense and allows only 11 per game. Wes Walters is a standout physical presence at inside linebacker, yet, as Gifford acknowledges, it’s difficult to name just one defensive standout.
“That’s what’s cool about a great defense,’’ Gifford said. “You have to look at the whole organism. It’s everybody, not just Wes. Everybody is playing their roles real well.’’
Gifford then proceeded to rattle off the names of key contributors such as inside backer Dwayne Trahan, ends Brion Escarsega-Calderon and Lou Passarello, nose guard Kevin Giffen, outside backers Messi Mahe and Chris Martinez, safety Colin Giffen and cornerback Damion Richard-Valencia.
As far as what to expect from Los Gatos (6-4) this second time around:
“Los Gatos threw early, got into the shotgun early against us, which is very unorthodox for them,’’ Gifford said. “I expect them to stick to their identity and want to pound the ball.’’
The most significant impact of receiving the No. 3 seed rather than the No. 2 seed is in what is projected to occur next week in the semifinals. If Palo Alto and Menlo-Atherton both win in the opening round they would play each other in the next round with the game at M-A, instead of at Paly.
“At least we won’t have to drive to Santa Cruz,’’ Gifford said. “I’d be angrier if we had to sit on a bus for two hours. We could walk to M-A if need be.’’
Milpitas at Menlo-Atherton, Friday, 5 p.m.
These two teams have met in the CCS Open Division I playoffs each of the last two years. Milpitas ended M-A’s season a year ago with a 33-20 semifinal win. The Trojans went on to win a state championship.
In 2016 the Bears beat Milpitas 17-0 in the CCS finals to win an Open Division I championship.
M-A’s defense played outstanding in both games. The shutout two years ago speaks for itself. Last year Milpitas scored three touchdowns on turnovers, two on interception returns and one on a fumble recovery in the end zone. Three touchdowns the Milpitas offense had nothing to do with. The M-A defense held Milpitas superstar Tariq Bracy, now at Notre Dame, to 48 yards rushing on 16 carries.
Avoiding the mistakes that plagued the team last year is a major focus this week for Menlo-Atherton coach Adhir Ravipati.
“Can we stop the run and take care of the football,’’ Ravipati said, listing the major issues his team faces in this year’s matchup.
M-A started the season 2-2 but has won six straight since, going undefeated in Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division play.
Milpitas lost a lot of talent off last year’s state championship team, but has been coming on as the season progressed.
“They’re talented,’’ Ravipati said. “They’re a tough matchup in terms of being a physical team with a lot of size. And they’ve gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on.’’
Four members of the current M-A team were on the team two years that beat Milpitas to win the CCS title and advanced to the state finals. Noa Ngalu and Daniel Heimuli both saw significant time in that game. Feleti Malupo and David Tafuna were also active for the game.
“They have set a good leadership example to make sure guys take care of business this week, stay dialed in and only be concerned with what we can control,’’ Ravipati said. “If we win we play another game. Lose and you’re done. There are no do-overs.’’
St. Ignatius at Sacred Heart Prep, Saturday, 1 p.m.
Since this matchup was announced on Sunday, Sacred Heart Prep coach Mark Grieb has immersed himself in St. Ignatius film.
“It feels like all I’ve been doing,’’ Grieb said.
St. Ignatius began the season 0-6 before winning three of its last four games. The Wildcats concluded the season on an up-note, shutting out Riordan and Bellarmine back-to-back by a combined score of 69-0.
“Their record is not indicative of the kind of team they are,’’ Grieb said. “They’re battle tested. It should be a real good challenge.’’
Sacred Heart Prep improved from 3-7 a year ago to 9-1 this season, thereby earning a No. 2 seed in the CCS Open Division III playoffs.
“We’re excited to have our first playoff game and get this thing going,’’ Grieb said.
The matchup is interesting in terms of offensive style. SHP’s trademark is its unusual fly sweep offense. Guess what, St. Ignatius also runs the fly sweep.
“Both defenses should be accustomed to facing it,’’ Grieb said. “Every team has their own version of it. They run a little more spread stuff than we do.
“They’re a disciplined, tough, fundamentally-sound football team. We need to protect the football and finish plays, do the little things right, blocking and tackling. If we do that then the big things, like putting the ball in the end zone, will take care of themselves.’’