The idea, Edison High football coach Matt Johnson says, is to provide a college-like experience for a team stocked with college-like players while preparing for the Southern California Regional Division I Championship at Oceanside tonight.
“A great preview for what college life is like,” says Johnson, whose experience as a player at USC in the ’80s meant Heritage Hall, a Rose Bowl, Notre Dame and so on.
The pre-game experience for his Tigers means a 300-mile bus ride to San Diego’s North County, hotel living — eating, meetings, bed checks — and a walk-through at John Carroll Stadium, where they will play the state’s fifth-ranked Pirates (13-0) at 7:30 p.m. on synthetic surface and likely in the rain.
But the burning question: Which Edison team will arrive there — the one that played out of its collective shoes emotionally for one of the biggest games in the program’s 88-year history, a 21-14 victory a week ago against Liberty-Bakersfield for the Central Section D-I title? Or the one sans motivation and along merely for the ride?
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“Could be a bumpy road,” allows Tigers defensive end Anthony Shepard. “We spent eight months to get into the Valley championship. And then we get accepted into state. Now it’s back to business.”
Johnson answers the questions with one: “How to re-energize and refocus after achieving the lofty goal?
“Wow, you reach the pinnacle stated way back when and, wham-o, you’re in a state game. We were so focused on the Valley, it really scared the heck out of me how this week would play out. But I think the guys are embracing the idea, the media attention, more college coaches coming around and a bowl. When I look in their eyes, I love what I see.”
Then, Johnson says, there’s the issue of Oceanside, champion of the San Diego Section’s Open Division: “Liberty was the best team we had played, but now the opponent is even better.”
The Pirates, drawing from a public school of 1,800 students, have won 13 section titles and 259 games in 26 seasons under the renovated facility’s namesake, John Carroll.
They’ve outscored the opposition 435-176 this season with a team Carroll says can be distinguished among its predecessors: “Reselience. This team probably should have lost a couple games along the way, but its will to win was stronger than the opponents’ will to win. This is a very, very powerful, emotional group with regard to that.”
What’s worked for decades in Oceanside football is blending many athletes of Polynesian descent with many from military parents at nearby Camp Pendleton. It’s made for an oft-extraordinary mix of athletic ability, structure, passion and leadership — perhaps embodied most by the late Junior Seau, an Oceanside graduate and 10-time NFL All-Pro.
“Without question,” Johnson says, “they put out the talent.”
The Pirates’ spread offense features quarterback Matthew Romero (2,672 yards passing, 24 touchdowns, seven interceptions), running back Josh Bernard (1,436 yards rushing, 25 TDs) and wide receiver Johnny Arzola (50 receptions, 756 yards, seven TDs). Imposing up front are tackles Cedrick Bigge-Duren (6-7, 300) and Christian Cronk (6-4, 270).
Romero — “Unlike any quarterback we’ve seen,” says Johnson — will be opposed by the Central Section’s elite secondary in A.J. Greeley, Tyler Horton and Juwan Murphy as well as middle linebacker Vance Sams, who also starts at offensive tackle and was offered a scholarship this week by Idaho State.
Oceanside’s defense is led by Washington-bound cornerback Jordan Miller and ends Tommy Woo and Amadeo West, who has 21 sacks.
“The defensive ends are fast and get off the ball well,” Edison offensive coordinator Vince Branstetter says. “We fully expect a dogfight.”
But it’s one that both coaches say is well-matched.
The Tigers are 12-1 and ranked 12th in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
“I’m impressed as heck with them,” Carroll says. “They are aggressive, very, very athletic and are multi-dimensional. They can strike in many ways. They take advantage of their weapons — and they have significant weapons.”
Edison senior quarterback Hunter Swearingen, who has progressively grasped the pro-style approach of first-year coordinator Branstetter, is complemented by 1,000-yard running back Khai Williams and a deep cast of receivers headlined by Greeley, Horton and Kamron Lewis.
Last week’s 9-of-18, 128-yard effort by Swearingen was typical — hardly spectacular, but clean and clutch when needed. It was his well-placed 63-yard touchdown bomb to Lewis that won it with 6 minutes remaining.
“He’s a good player, a darn good player,” Branstetter says. “But I feel horrible because he just doesn’t have the numbers to prove it. It’s kind of tough to sell a guy (to college coaches) who throws for 160 yards a game. But he’s an Ivy Leaguer, very smart, and the glue to this team.”