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The CIF-SS “competitive equity” playoff model has shrunk the differences from the top and bottom of each division’s playoff brackets, but San Juan Hills looked every bit of a No. 1 seed on Friday night, Nov. 3.
The Stallions forced three first-half turnovers and scored on each of them in a string of four consecutive scoring drives, as San Juan Hills took down visiting St. Francis of La Canada, 37-18, in a CIF-SS Division 3 first-round game.
San Juan Hills (10-1) will go on the road in the Division 3 quarterfinals next Friday, Nov. 10, at Citrus Valley High in Redlands. Citrus Valley defeated Leuzinger, 17-14, on Friday.
“I believe in these guys,” Stallions coach Rob Frith said. “I think tonight is the best team game we’ve played. We had a lot of guys contribute on both sides of the football. It’s a team win. We are a team. We are a unit.”
Despite falling into the No. 1 seed in Division 3 after the decision for an eight-team Division 1 brought up the Division 2 cutoff, San Juan Hills wasn’t given a traditional cupcake No. 16 seed. St. Francis (8-3) was co-champion of the Angelus League and back-to-back CIF-SS runner-up in Divisions 4 and 5.
“Whether you’re the No. 1 seed or not, everyone in this division is good,” Frith said. “We just look at it as us versus our opponent. There’s no No. 1 seed. There’s no No. 2 seed. Now it’s just teams playing ball. Every team is a formidable opponent. Every single game we play in these playoffs, we’re probably going to play the best team we’ve seen all year.”
Based on the CalPreps ratings that are used to create the CIF-SS playoff divisions, St. Francis (35.7) was the highest-rated team San Juan Hills has faced this season, just a smidge above Tesoro (35.5). Frith’s logic tracks, as the Stallions move on to face Citrus Valley (37.8).
On Friday, San Juan Hills ended three of St. Francis’ first four drives with a turnover and followed with a score shortly thereafter.
St. Francis’ third play from scrimmage was an incomplete pass that was ruled a lateral fumble, which was recovered by Isaiah Bennett to put San Juan Hills at the Golden Knights’ 7-yard line. Despite the protest of the St. Francis coach, the Stallions took over, and on the ensuing fourth-and-goal, quarterback Timmy Herr snuck in the one-yard touchdown for the early lead.
Four plays into the Golden Knights’ next drive, Chris Williams snagged his first of two interceptions, and San Juan Hills scored minutes later on a 14-yard catch-and-run by Sullivan Land. The extra point was no good for a 13-0 lead.
St. Francis responded with a touchdown drive to open the second quarter, and San Juan Hills came right back to score on a drive where its air attack clicked in. Jason Robinson Jr. shook his defender to stand alone in the endzone for a 12-yard strike from Herr and a 20-7 lead.
Two plays into the ensuing St. Francis drive, Williams struck again with a pick, jumping on the route and set up the Stallions deep in Golden Knights territory. Manuel Maganda capitalized with a 38-yard field goal for a 16-point lead.
“Our defense, they swarm,” Frith said. “We try to create a lot of pressure. They didn’t run the ball very well, so we forced them to throw it. They’re a good team. They’re going to get their completion. Their quarterback’s numbers probably don’t look too bad in terms of yards.”
There was still a window for St. Francis, and its winning pedigree was evident on a grinding 12-play drive capped with a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab by Princeton commit Preston Jernegan and a two-point conversion to cut it back to a one-score deficit, 23-15, at halftime.
San Juan Hills’ complementary team game shined through in the second half as the Stallions held off St. Francis’ advances and nailed down the winning margin.
San Juan Hills scored on its first drive of the second half, as Herr led the offense with his arm and dumped off a 13-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Ayala for a 15-point advantage, 30-15.
St. Francis looked to cut back into the lead and stay alive by registering its fourth fourth-down conversion of the game with a fake punt on a 15-play response drive. However, the Golden Knights couldn’t find the end zone, and a 27-yard field goal still left the St. Francis two scores behind San Juan Hills, 30-18.
The Stallions effectively put the game away four plays later. A reverse flea-flicker saw Herr toss a deep ball to Weston Port for 39 yards, and Robinson Jr. took a hand-off pass from Herr on a 5-yard sweep and spun into the end zone for the score and the dagger, 37-18.
Herr finished 17-of-24 passing for 202 yards and four touchdowns. Robinson Jr. caught eight passes for 67 yards and two scores.
St. Francis still picked up passing yards on its next drive, but the Golden Knights were finally stopped on fourth down with just over six minutes left. San Juan Hills wound down the game for the first-round victory.
St. Francis quarterback John Sanders completed 23 of 39 passes for 219 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
San Juan Hills has now won five consecutive CIF-SS first-round games dating back to 2017.