By Ray Hamill — Even if they win this weekend’s North Coast Section semifinal with Las Lomas, there’s close to a 50-50 chance this will be the last game for this once-in-a-generation group of Eureka seniors.
So local fans had better savor the moment.
With Cardinal Newman head coach Paul Cronin having made it clear his players have voted to take their chances on a coin toss for a shot at moving on to the CIF regional games, even if the Eureka players advance past the Knights, there is now a good chance they won’t get the opportunity to play for an NCS title.
And that means their fate would be decided by a coin flip at the NCS offices at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday.
There is, of course, no guarantee No. 1 seed Cardinal Newman will beat No. 4 El Cerrito on Friday night, but the Santa Rosa school will be heavily favored.
Preparing for the Knights
Regardless of that, the No. 2 Loggers still have to account for a good No. 3 Las Lomas team on Saturday night, and a squad of players probably better than any they have faced all year.
But that’s something they appear to be ready for.
“To be honest with you, this team is looking forward to the challenge,” Eureka head coach Jason White said. “This is something we’ve wanted all year.”
The Knights come into the game with a perfect 12-0 record and have shut out seven of their past nine opponents.
They are currently ranked No. 130 in the state by MaxPreps, 54 places behind the Loggers at 76.
To put it into perspective, according to current rankings, Lincoln (227) and Ukiah (260) are the highest ranked teams the Loggers have faced thus far. (Lincoln was ranked 121 when it traveled to Albee Stadium in late September and lost 34-22.)
The Knights are coming off a 42-0 win over No. 11 Terra Linda in last weekend’s NCS quarterfinal, while the Loggers are 11-0 and dominated De Anza 66-20 three weeks ago in their quarterfinal.
Despite the long layoff, White is confident his players will be ready to go and won’t show any signs of rustiness.
“Honestly, I kind of think it’s going to be the opposite,” he said. “They’re raring to play right now. We’ve had so much time, the kids are sick of waiting at this point.”
Plenty of weapons
The Knights feature an assortment of top weapons on both sides of the ball, as you would expect from a team that is 12-0.
“They’re explosive offensively,” White said.
In particular, senior quarterback Dylan Graham (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) will be a challenge.
Graham threw for five touchdowns against Terra Linda and now has a school record 31 TDs this season, compared to just two interceptions.
According to White, the Knights also have a junior running back who is already being recruited by two or three Pac-12 teams (Isaiah Newell), as well as a receiver who has committed to UC Davis (Blake Thorpe).
“They’ve got some weapons on offense,” the Eureka head coach said.
And key for the Eureka defense, which has dominated opponents all season itself, will be containing those big-play threats.
“We’ve got to stop their offensive weapons,” White said. “We can’t let (Newell) run all over us, and we can’t let their quarterback get comfortable and try to surgically dissect us.”
Despite those big weapons when they have the ball, the Knights have been arguably even more dangerous on defense, where they have shut out five of their six league opponents dating back to the middle of September.
The level of opposition, however, has not been the same as the Loggers have faced.
Only five of the Knights’ 12 victories have come against teams ranked in the top-500 in the state, while nine of the Loggers’ 11 wins have come against top-500 teams.
And the Knights will have their hands full against a Eureka offense that features several big-time playmakers themselves, with senior quarterback Cruz Montana taking full advantage and spreading the ball around effectively all season.
Montana has thrown for 2,497 yards, 25 TDs and just three picks, and was fourth in the entire NCS in passer rating (138.8) during the regular season.
One of the problems for teams facing the Loggers is they can’t key in any one, two or three players.
And a very experienced Eureka coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Garret Montana, has done a good job all year of having their players prepared.
“For us the big thing is executing, and protecting the football in the elements,” White said. “Defensively, we’ve got to stop their run and put pressure on their quarterback.”
Similar to their opponents, the Loggers have a dynamic offense, but arguably are even better on defense.
The unit, led by senior linebacker Tyce Mullins, has been nothing short of phenomenal, with many of the same playmakers as on offense.
A total of 15 different players have accounted for 34 takeaways, led by Zach Reed’s seven, including his five interceptions.
That gives Eureka a plus-20 ratio in turnovers/takeaways.
Rainy conditions could also come into play on Saturday night.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.