By Jeremy Balan
The St. Ignatius football team’s trip into the uncharted waters of the Division I Northern California regional championship game, by design, presents an unfamiliar opponent.
There isn’t a whole lot linking St. Ignatius and its opponent Granite Bay, the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champion, so it’s been difficult for the Wildcats to gauge what exactly to expect.
Odds are, the Wildcats won’t find out until they hit the field on Friday night at Sacramento State University.
“It’s hard – not playing against them, not seeing them live and not having a history against them – to understand how we stack up,” said St. Ignatius head coach John Regalia. “We need to do that as we prepare this week, but there’s some ambiguity to it. We might think we have an advantage in a spot or they might think they have an advantage in a different spot, but we’re really going to have to find out Friday night.”
The information that is available on the Grizzlies is pretty impressive.
Granite Bay began the season with two lopsided losses to Southern California powers Westlake and Oaks Christian, then defeated Vacaville handily to collect its first win.
Vacaville is really the only connection, albeit distant, between the Granite Bay and St. Ignatius. Vacaville shares two common opponents with St. Ignatius, defeating both Valley Christian and Marin Catholic. The Wildcats also beat Valley Christian, but fell to Marin Catholic (which will compete in the Division III regional) in their season opener.
Granite Bay wrapped up its non-league season with a one-point loss to Pittsburg and a blowout win over Lincoln of Stockton, then went undefeated in the loaded Sierra Foothill League, which has produced two state championship finalists in the past three seasons (Rocklin in 2009 and Del Oro in 2011), although neither won a state title.
As the No. 5 seed in the Sac-Joaquin Division I playoffs, the Grizzlies then beat better seeds in each round, including previously-undefeated Franklin, the top-ranked team in the bracket, by a 37-7 margin in the semifinals.
It was no surprise, then, when the Grizzlies took down third-seeded Oak Ridge in the section final, extending their win streak to 10 games.
“They’ve been tested in their league and tested outside of their league,” Regalia said. “They’ve challenged themselves to get to this point and have showed tremendous improvement as the season has gone on.”
Although the Grizzlies only won the section title game by 12 points, they racked up 600 yards of total offense, including 542 yards rushing. The offensive outburst was tempered, however, by four key turnovers.
“We had not made any mistakes for about six or seven weeks,” said Granite Bay head coach Ernie Cooper, who coached previously in the Central Coast Section at Harbor of Santa Cruz (1986-1988) and Aptos (1989-1995). “Our guy hadn’t thrown an interception in eight games and those four turnovers slowed down our momentum.”
The Grizzlies feature two rushers that have totaled over 1,000 yards (a third has over 700) and the Wildcats are used to run-heavy attacks in the West Catholic Athletic League, but Granite Bay presents a unique type of offense.
Granite Bay runs what is called a fly offense. Its most basic component is called a fly sweep, which involves a slot receiver in motion toward the quarterback to receive a handoff.
“The philosophy of a fly team is to establish the sweep first and see how teams adjust to that play, and then work their other plays off that,” Regalia said. “There’s definitely misdirection involved. You have to be a smart player to play in the fly offense.”
Granite Bay’s motion man, junior Tony Ellison, is one of the Grizzlies’ 1,000-yard rushers, but senior tailback John Cooley leads the team with 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season.
Regalia, who has been on the St. Ignatius coaching staff for much longer than his two full seasons as head coach, said it has been at least five years since the Wildcats have faced a team that runs the fly offense.
“Every offense these days has a fly sweep, so I’m sure they’ve seen that, but our guy tends to be in motion every single play,” Cooper said. “We don’t think we have any type of advantage. This is the offense we have, and we have some inside run plays and some outside run plays, just like any offense. Emulating it in practice can be a pain, though. The scout team has to learn it pretty quickly.”
The St. Ignatius offense has been a strength all year, riding a breakout season from junior running back Elijah Dale and a steady effort from senior quarterback Jack Stinn, but has sputtered in recent weeks. Even in wins, the Wildcats have struggled to put together the extended drives that have been its trademark all season.
“We’ve been playing good teams with really good defenses,” Regalia said. “I think that has something to do with it. We’re not going to move the ball at-will on every opponent and we don’t think we can. We have to work on it, teams are going to adjust and that’s all part of the game.”
The offense has made plays when it has needed to, however, including two touchdown runs by Dale in the late stages of St. Ignatius’ 13-10 overtime win over Bellarmine last week in the CCS Open Division championship game.
What has caught Cooper’s attention most is the Wildcats’ versatility.
“On offense they can run it, they can throw it and then they can drop into that spread,” Cooper said. “That kinda pisses us off. You’d love to play a team that has tendencies – that’s good with one area – but they have a team that can do more than one thing. That makes them a dangerous team. If something isn’t working, they can go to something else.”