The CIF Southern Section is as wide open as ever. There seems to be a clear cut No. 1 and No. 2, but after that, there is a legion of very good teams each with question marks of their own. With the Marmonte league joining the Pac-5, we are one step closer to a true Southern Section Champion. Now if we could just get the Pac-5 champion to play the Inland champion, we’d be there.
Here is a look at the teams who will challenge for the title of FOX Sports Southern Section Champion. No. 1 Santa Margarita won the Pac-5 in 2011 with a nucleus of juniors who are now seniors including arguably the nation’s best high school quarterback in Nebraska commitment Johnny Stanton. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, Stanton is bigger than a lot of defensive linemen he faces, and his power running game simply wears down opponents exemplified by the Eagles’ 16-play, game-clinching drive in the final against San Clemente to seal the Pac-5 championship last year. Stanton’ offensive weapons River Cracraft and Ryan Wolpin return at receiver and running back respectively, and nobody boasts a better offensive line than the Eagles’ led by Dane Crane (Washington), Erik Bunte (UCLA), and Riley Sorenson. Santa Margarita faces a four-game stretch starting Sept. 21 that includes St. Bonaventure, Servite, Mater Dei and Orange Lutheran. No. 2 Vista Murrieta finished No. 1 in the 2011 FOX Sports CIF-SS pole after winning the meat grinder that was the Inland Division last year. The Broncos recovered from a forfeit of its first four games to continue its season unbeaten on the field including a thriller against a powerful Corona Centennial squad in the Inland Final. The Broncos return the Southern Section’s – if not the nation’s – best two-way player in linebacker/receiver Su’a Cravens (USC), and we watched quarterback Nick Stephens mature from a game manager to a play maker during the 2011 unbeaten run. The Broncos’ regular season schedule is relatively light.
No. 3 Mission Viejo lost twice in state last year by a combined four points including a heartbreaking, 21-20 Pac-5 playoff loss to eventual champion Santa Margarita. While the Diablos lose their starting offensive backfield, they return virtually everyone else including dynamic safety/receiver Max Redfield (USC). A trio of transfers including quarterback Ian Fieber from Orange Lutheran and receiver Sean Modster and speedy running back Alex Suchesk, both from Santa Margarita, could provide an immediate boost to an offense that struggled to consistently put up points in 2011. The Diablos face a three-game stretch that includes Redlands East Valley, which beat Mission Viejo in 2011, followed by trips to a rebuilding San Clemente and top South Coast League challenger Tesoro.
No. 4 Servite lived a charmed life in 2011 pulling out a host of close games, but the Friars picked the wrong time to get snake-bit as Tesoro upended them in the second round of the Pac-5 playoffs. Servite must find a replacement for efficient quarterback Cody Pittman, but easing the transition will be standout running backs Charlie Etiaki (Utah) and junior Andrew Moore. With an always tough Trinity League schedule along with matchups with No. 5 Rancho Cucamonga and Nevada power Bishop Gorman, Servite may be hard pressed to match their 2011 two-loss season, yet still go farther than the second round of the playoffs.
No. 5 Rancho Cucamonga featured one of the best defenses in the Southern Section in 2011, and most of its key contributors are back for the 2012 slate including arguably the top defensive back duo in the nation in cornerback Chris Hawkins (USC) and Tahaan Goodman. The Latu twins – Alani and Viliami – form one of the best linebacker combinations in the state as well. The 2011 Cougars were offensively challenged at times, but 1,400-yard rusher Tyan Washington returns to carry the load. A Sept. 1 matchup with No. 4 Servite will tell us a lot about both teams early in the season.
No. 6 Corona Centennial may have more to replace than any other contender with the loss of running back Romello Goodman and quarterback Hayden Gavett to graduation, but the Huskies always seem to be strongest where it matters most, the lines of scrimmage. Cameron Hunt and Anthony Juarez represent nearly 600 pounds of offensive linemen, but just like last year, the new quarterback will get thrown to the wolves, or should we say Seraphs, right away with St. Bonaventure first up on Corona Centennial’s schedule.
No. 7 Bishop Alemany may be the most explosive team in the Southern Section. USC commitment Steven Mitchell is a thrill-a-minute-highlight show at his wide receiver position and quarterback Devon Dunn returns to keep tossing passes to his favorite target. Alemany lost two regular season games by a total of two points before running into a good St. John Bosco squad in the playoffs. The Warriors should have the firepower to get out of the first round this year and a Sept. 14 matchup with No. 6 Corona Centennial will be a good barometer.
No. 8 Oaks Christian had some big losses on the field including leading rusher and top defensive back Ishmael Adams, but the biggest loss will be felt on the sidelines with the retirement of Bill Redell. Redell led the Lions to seven CIF Championships in 12 years as the program’s only coach. On the field, Oaks Christian seemingly always has plenty of talent, and the 2012 version is no different. Linebacker Cameron Judge (UCLA) will lead the defense, while Brandon Dawkins returns at quarterback to lead the offense. Dawkins had a miserable final against Westlake tossing five interceptions, but the junior grew up a lot that day and should be one of the top quarterbacks in the Southern Section the next two years.
No. 9 Mater Dei was the antithesis of Servite in 2011 in that the Monarchs kept losing all the close games with a young team. Mater Dei beat Pac-5 Champion Santa Margarita, yet only finished 2-3 in the Trinity League. It’s payback time for Mater Dei as the young team is no longer so young returning 15 starters including monster receiver/tight end Thomas Duarte. Mater Dei faces a brutal schedule and tests itself with trips to Edison and Narbonne before opening league play.
No. 10 Lompoc may looks like an outlier in these rankings, but the Braves are coming off of a 14-0 season in which they were rarely tested. Employing a punishing ground attack, Lompoc rushed for over 4,000 yards last season with three players combining for 3,500 of them: Lavon Coleman, Taylor Cornejo and A.J. Flores. They’re all back. For good measure quarterback Luciano Lopez returns as well. Lompoc hung the only loss on Arroyo Grande last year, and those two teams face off again on Aug. 24.