The Bear River football team (8-2 overall, 2-2 Pioneer Valley League) will face one of its toughest challenges of the season Friday at Central Catholic (8-2 overall, 6-0 Western League) in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs.
As a No. 11 seed, the Bruins will be the underdogs, traveling to Modesto to take on an offense that has averaged more than 50 points and 400 yards of total offense per game this season. The Raiders feature a balanced attack and can beat you in more than one way.
Their most impressive performances of the year include a 28-21 win over Division II Saint Mary’s of Stockton and a 45-42 loss to Division I Downey, where they racked up more than 300 yards passing and more than 150 on the ground.
“It’s do or die,” said co-head coach Terry Logue. “Understanding the finality of it is the difference.”
Central Catholic’s senior quarterback, Garrett Ardis, has plenty of weapons at his disposal. He could the hand off to senior Ray Lomas IV, who has 1,277 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season, averaging slightly more than 8 yards per carry. Lomas has eight 100-yards-plus performances this year, including a season-high 222 against Placer, a game Central Catholic lost 48-30.
Of course, Ardis could fake the handoff to Lomas and pitch it out to senior Rey Vega, who has 524 yards on just 35 carries for 11 touchdowns. Of the four games Vega has run the ball, he exceeded 100 yards in three of them.
Ardis and the Raiders run well, but they pass 23 percent of the time, so you never know when a play-action pass might get called, and moments later, the defenders are trying to chase down seniors Nathan Loya or Johnny Mundt. Loya has 529 yards receiving on 30 catches with seven touchdowns, while Mundt has 461 yards on 25 grabs good for six touchdowns. Mundt is rumored to have made a verbal commitment to Oregon.
Then consider Ardis as a quarterback, sporting 1,241 yards and 15 touchdowns with just six interceptions and averaging 124.1 yards per game.
And if the Bruins hope to force some fumbles, they might find it difficult. Collectively, the Raiders offense has only coughed up the ball nine times and only lost five of them to the opposition. Bear River has only allowed 18.5 points per game and averages 3.1 takeaways per game.
“We need to wrap up tackles and do our jobs, or they’ll tear us apart,” said senior running back and linebacker Cody Heard.
On the defensive side of the ball for Central Catholic, Oregon-bound Mundt anchors the line and has wrapped up 11 and a half sacks on the year. If a double-team is necessary, then maybe Terrell Elder, Reggie Bland or Mathew Ringer will find their way to Bruins’ quarterback Dillon Smith and add to their combined 11 sacks on the season.
If the Bruins find time to throw downfield, then they’ll have to worry about Joey Abbate’s coverage. Abbate has five interceptions this season. The Raiders give up 18.9 points per game, less than half the amount they usually put on the scoreboard.
For the playoffs, the Bruins have added 14 players to their roster from the JV squad to provide some additional depth, and they are already being of assistance.
“They’ve helped us in practice, and they’re getting some varsity experience,” Logue said.
Despite opening the postseason on the road against an intimidating opponent, there is still much optimism among the Bear River players.
“If we play our absolute best for 48 minutes, we can really take it to theses guys,” said linebacker Zack Quirarte. “We’ll talk with our pads.”
The Bruins have proven their resiliency like no other this season. Quarterback Smith not only overcame a shoulder injury this season, but right now has the Bruins riding a two-game win streak. Smith has 1,271 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.
“I don’t want it to be our last game,” said senior quarterback Smith. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen out there.”
Last week against Foothill, Smith hooked up with his receiver Tevyn Kimble six times for 106 yards and two touchdowns on back-to-back drives in a 42-13 victory. Kimble now has 738 yards and five touchdowns.
“I know when he breaks,” said Smith. “We have this connection. (Central Catholic’s) defensive line gets off the ball fast, so I’ll get the ball out as soon as I can.”
Last year, the Bruins had the No. 9 seed but were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round on the road against No. 8 seed Sonora, 42-20. As the No. 5 seed last season, the Central Catholic Raiders advanced to the semifinals before being knocked out by No. 1 seed Escalon, 24-17.
The Pioneer Valley League announced its all-league team selections earlier this week with the Bruins earning 10 spots on the roster.
Smith, Kimble and offensive lineman Jerry Fuhrman made the offensive first team, while running back Austin Dowling was elected to the second team.
Linebackers Heard and Zach Winter, defensive linemen Jake Savoie and J’Sean Harwood and defensive back Michael Raigoza earned spots on the defensive first team, and linebacker Hunter Cramer made the defensive second team.
To contact Sports Writer Brian Shepard, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4234.