After two years of coming up short, once because of a miracle touchdown by its opponent on the final play of the final regular-season game, Sherman Oaks Notre Dame is back in the Pac-5 playoffs armed with an offense that's playing as well as any in the division.
And a big reason is the strong leadership of 6-foot-6 senior quarterback Kelly Hilinski, who's improvement in accuracy and judgment has led to scholarship offers from Colorado, North Carolina State and Arkansas, among others.
"It's long awaited," Hilinski said of his first playoff game, Friday at home against Westlake Village Oaks Christian. "It's exciting. I've dreamed about this since my freshman year. You're playing to get that ring. We've worked so hard to get where we are."
Notre Dame (7-3) tied for the Serra League championship with Mission Hills Alemany. The offense has made steady improvement and has a lot of ways to score, with speedy running back Khalfani Muhammad and talented receivers led by California commit Koa Farmer and junior Daniel Khan. Also, the offensive line has done a good job protecting Hilinski, who has passed for more than 1,800 yards and 19 touchdowns with four interceptions.
"I feel my progress as a quarterback has a lot to do with my teammates," he said.
Two years ago, Notre Dame was beaten by Encino Crespi, 34-28, on the final play of the final game of the regular season on a touchdown that featured laterals and a miracle ending, denying the Knights a playoff berth. Last season there were more close defeats in league play, leaving Notre Dame out of the playoffs again.
This season, the Knights have shown resilience late in the season, particularly on offense.
"When we started the season, we wanted to be our best at Week 10," Hilinski said. "That's what we were able to do. Hopefully, we can do that through the playoffs."
Second chance for Sylmar
Way back on Aug. 30, Sylmar lost its season opener to Venice, 34-6. Much has changed, and the Spartans (7-3) believe they have a chance to win the rematch against Venice on Friday night in a City Section Division I playoff opener.
The big difference is that Sylmar promoted freshman quarterback Clarence Williams to varsity, and he has joined the versatile Jamere Austin in helping lead Sylmar to a five-game winning streak.
Venice (8-2) is seeded No. 3 and will try to control the ball behind the running of Alijah Lee and the passing of Alexander Diamont.
Latest Centennial star
Corona Centennial has been producing some pretty good quarterbacks, such as Taylor Martinez (Nebraska) and Matt Scott (Arizona). The latest Huskies standout is junior Robert Webber, who finished the regular season with 2,170 yards passes, 24 touchdowns and just one interception.
Centennial (9-1), seeded No. 2 in the Inland Division, opens the playoffs Friday against Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos.