It didn’t take Immanuel High football coach Matt Armstrong long to understand the challenge his team will face against Mater Dei Catholic-Chula Vista in the CIF State Division V-AA championship.
The San Diego Section Division IV champion Crusaders (13-1) are fast.
Faster than anyone the Central Section Division V champion Eagles (11-2) have seen this season, and that includes Bradshaw Christian-Sacramento, who Immanuel beat 31-21 on Dec. 11 in the Northern California Regionals to reach the state championship stage.
“They have speed all over the field, they are pretty big upfront and they don’t turn the ball over,” Armstrong said. “You don’t see kids like that at the small schools level too often. I would venture to say that you don’t see that anywhere up and down the state. These guys are running 4.5, 4.4 40s.”
The speediest Crusader of all appears to be junior running back CJ Verdell, who has delivered one highlight reel-worthy run after another during a 1,982-yard, 26-touchdown season.
Verdell, who averages 12.7 yards per carry, powers Mater Dei Catholic’s spread offense that’s directed by junior quarterback Chris Jones (1,977 yards, 23 touchdowns, one interception). Jones’ favorite target has been speedster junior receiver Eli Shelton, who has produced an impressive highlight reel of his own while catching 21 passes for 757 yards (an average of 36 yards per reception) and 11 touchdowns.
1,982 and 26 Rushing yards and touchdowns for CJ Verdell, who will lead host Mater Dei Catholic-Chula Vista into the CIF State Division V-AA final against Immanuel at 6 p.m. Saturday
“That tailback is phenomenal. With him in the backfield, you really have to honor that aspect of their game,” Armstrong said. “So they get you in a lot of one-on-one situations outside, and that quarterback throws it where he needs to. He puts the ball on the money and makes good decisions.”
Defensively, senior outside linebacker Mario Williams has produced 18 of the Crusaders’ 56 sacks, while junior free safety Jovan Bayless has four of his team’s 25 interceptions.
And Mater Dei is strong in special teams, too, with explosive returners in Verdell and Shelton, as well a kicker in senior Alex Golembiewski who has converted a field goal from 50 yards this season and delivered touch-backs on 51 of 93 kickoffs.
It all adds up to the toughest opponent faced in a long, long time for Immanuel – which is sending three rooter buses and expects a following of around 200 fans to make the 340-mile, six-hour trip to a town located 10 miles from the Mexican border.
“We’re going to have to play great and really bring our ‘A’ game,” Armstrong said. “The good thing is we have been playing really well. Each week, we’ve been getting better and better. The goal all along has been to peak at the right time, and I think we are.”