For the first time in his brief head coaching career, Flintridge Prep's Antonio Harrison found himself at the CIF Southern Section offices for the release of the football playoff pairings.
For only the second time in his 12 years as St. Francis' head coach, Jim Bonds and his Golden Knights looked as if they wouldn't find themselves in the postseason.
But on Sunday, Harrison realized him and his Rebels were right where they wanted to be, while Bonds and his Golden Knights were pleasantly surprised to find themselves right where they're used to being - in the playoffs.
"It was a great feeling, it was the first time as a head coach I've been down there," said Harrison, who in his third season at the helm will pilot the Rebels into a Friday matchup at Ribet Academy in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Northeast Division playoffs. "I was there with our defensive coordinator, Matt Linder, and when we got back to the car, I told him, 'Let's make this a tradition.'"
St. Francis, which has now made the playoffs five straight seasons, will make a long trek north to face No. 1 seed Lompoc in the first round of the Western Division playoffs on Friday.
"I wasn't really confident [we would get an at-large berth], but I thought we had a slight chance," said Bonds, whose Golden Knights are 4-6 with a 1-4 record in the Mission League, which has five teams in the playoffs, including both of the division's at-large berths. "I'm just happy the CIF followed their criteria.
"I believe we deserved it."
The criteria Bonds spoke of was his team's strength of schedule and strength of league. Clearly, the Mission League, with Chaminade seeded second, Serra seeded fourth and both Cathedral and Harvard-Westlake also in the playoffs, was viewed as the strongest league in the Western Division. As for the schedule, the Golden Knights were blown out by both Serra and Chaminade, but in losses to Harvard-Westlake and Cathedral along with La Mirada (No. 1 seed in Southeast Division) and Monrovia (No. 2 seed in Mid-Valley Division) they lost by a touchdown or less.
"Just based on the criteria, I thought we still had a chance," said Bonds, whose team snapped a five-game losing streak with a 34-14 trouncing of St. Paul on Friday.
On the flip side, none of the Golden Knights' victories have come against teams with winning records. Ventura, likely the biggest snub from the Western Division bracket - "They have a legitamate gripe," Bonds said - tied with Buena for third place in the Channel League and went 6-4, while Buena went 5-5.
St. Francis, which was also ranked in the division top 10 the majority of the season and as high as No. 4 at one point, will face a Lompoc squad that is 10-0 after winning the Los Padres League and flat out dominating the majority of its competion. Coming off an 88-4 win over Cabrillo, the Braves have scored more than 30 points in nine of 10 games this season and more than 40 in seven. They've won by double-digits in every game but one.
A run-heavy squad, the Braves are led by running backs Nikko Hayes and Lavon Coleman and the offense is averaging 42.1 points per game.
"We got a really tough draw with Lompoc, obviously," Bonds said, "but I believe the Mission League has us battle-tested."
Led by a five-touchdown performance from senior quarterback Jared Lebowitz, the Golden Knights got their first league win on Friday and Bonds believes that should give his team some well-needed momentum.
"We felt great about how we played on Friday night, we felt we finally played a complete game," Bonds said.
Lebowitz has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns, with senior receiver Tommy Scheper approaching 1,000 yards and the tandem of running back Daniel Kawamura and the healed-up Joe Mudie providing a versatile tandem out of the backfield.
"If we play as well as we can and leave it all on the field," Bonds said, "we'll see what can happen."
The winner will play either Culver City or Dos Pueblos in the second round.
In the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Flintridge Prep will face a Ribet team that is also in the midst of a great comeback story. The Rebels are 5-4 after a 3-1 second-place finish in the Prep League just a season after a one-win year. The Fighting Frogs, winners of the Arrowhead League, are 9-1, having gone 5-0 in league play just a season after going 1-8.
Ribet, which has won four straight games, has scored 30 or more points six times and eclipsed 50 the last two weeks.
"They've got great skill guys," Harrison said. "Our goal is going to be to slow these guys down and not let this become a track meet."
On paper going off of records, Ribet is likely the favorite, but Harrison is confident in his team's chances.
"I think we match up great," he said. "I like our chances a lot."
Offensively, the Rebels are led by Stefan Smith and Kurt Kozacik, who've both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Harrison said his team's run-heavy offensive approach won't change, with an emphasis on controlling the tempo against the high-flying Frogs.
"The key is to slow them down," Harrison said. "We don't want a track meet, we want to grind it out."
The winner will face either top-seeded Mission Prep or Frazier Mountain.
All games are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. unless both teams agree on a change.