State showdown: South Tahoe football ends 25-year drought, faces Desert Pines in 3A State semifinals
The state playoffs present unfamiliar territory for the South Tahoe football team. But for the Vikings, it’s where they wanted to be all along.
“It’s a new word in this town — ‘state playoffs,’” senior quarterback Tommy Cefalu said. “We haven’t seen it in a long, long time. We’re all excited, pumped and focused to get this win.”
Northern second seed South Tahoe (9-2) travels to play Southern top seed Desert Pines (Las Vegas) (10-1) in the 3A State semifinals Saturday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. Though the Vikings are making their first state appearance in 25 years, they are heading to Las Vegas with one objective in mind — keeping “The Year” going for another week.
“It’s a business trip,” junior Matt Cain said. “We just have to go down there and do what we do.”
The Vikings are carrying a lot of confidence into state after punching their ticket with a 28-20 win at Truckee in the 3A Northern League semifinals Nov. 5. South Tahoe delivered its best performance of the season to avenge a regular season loss to the Wolverines, and snap a seven-game losing streak against their cross-lake rivals.
“We know now that we can beat any team we want once we play well and trust each other,” senior Tyler Ritter said. “It just brings a whole sense of momentum and confidence into the game — that if we do our jobs we can beat any team in the state.”
South Tahoe knows it’s in store for a challenge against the Jaguars on Saturday. Some clicking around on recruiting sites reveals the high-profile talent that will line up across the field from the Vikings — including players headed to the likes of USC, Arizona, Louisville and UNLV.
“Big and fast doesn’t beat us,” said junior McCallan Castles, who has three Division I offers of his own. “We just have to do our jobs and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
The Vikings aren’t bothered by Desert Pines’ talent, speed or size, but know that execution and a fast start are key in order for them to knock off the Jaguars on their home field. Offensively, South Tahoe will need a balanced, efficient performance similar to what it delivered against Truckee in the league semifinals.
“We have to protect our quarterback and be able to run the ball against them,” Vikings coach Louis Franklin said. “We have to make sure we’re balanced offensively.”
Cefalu has thrown for 2,010 yards and 27 touchdowns this season, and his performance against the Wolverines may have been his best of the season. Cefalu threw for 201 yards and four touchdowns, and completed 70 percent of his passes — including 19 completions of 14 yards or less.
“We’re not expecting too many big plays — no long bombs really,” Cefalu said. “We plan to stay under their coverages, throw under them, chip away at them, and wear them down.”
Cefalu has a number of weapons in the passing game, highlighted by the 6-foot-5-inch Castles and 5-foot-7-inch senior Noah Jackson. Against Truckee, Castles caught three touchdown passes and Jackson had 10 catches for 118 yards.
South Tahoe leans on senior Jacob Bernal on the ground, but its rushing attack could also feature Cefalu, Jackson, shifty senior Dylan Gooding and bruising senior Andrew Herrera. When the Vikings have the ball, Franklin said one of the biggest keys will be executing “heat check” plays designed to keep the Jaguars’ rush in check.
“We have to get everyone some touches, attack different parts of the field — and just try to break some of our tendencies at this point,” Franklin said.
Defensively, the Vikings face a Desert Pines offense led by quarterback Randal Grimes. The 6-foot-4-inch senior headed to USC as a receiver took over as quarterback after the Jaguars lost their starter, and has thrown for 1,003 yards and nine touchdowns since making the switch.
“He’s a superior athlete, he’ll run the ball, and he’s obviously a threat anytime he’s on the field,” Franklin said. “But it’s better than seeing him out there on the edge.”
The Jaguars’ run-heavy spread attack relies on UNLV-bound senior Isaiah Morris, who has rushed for 1,448 yards and 21 touchdowns this year — including a 209-yard, four-touchdown performance against Moapa Valley (Overton, Nev.) in the regional semifinals. On the outside, 6-foot-2-inch receiver Tony Fields is a big-play threat headed to Arizona.
“It’s about squeezing down the running lanes and being disciplined in our contain on the backside — and we have to be able to tackle,” Franklin said.
Northern top seed Spring Creek (10-0) hosts Southern second seed Chaparral (Las Vegas) (6-5) in the other state semifinal Saturday at 1 p.m. The winners meet for the 3A State championship next Saturday, Nov. 19.
“It’s what we’ve been dreaming of all together since we were freshmen,” senior Tyler Ritter said of potentially playing for a state title. “It’s a feeling we’ve been dreaming about and it could become a reality.”