Showdown in West Valley
The game has been in the sights of both teams for weeks now, and while they could have overlooked other West Valley League opponents, Woodland Hills Taft and Lake Balboa Birmingham followed the one-game-at-a-time approach.
And so, after beating up everybody else, the game that means everything--at least so far in the season--for both teams is finally here.
Taft (9-0, 4-0) plays at Birmingham (7-2, 4-0) on Friday night to determine the West Valley champion and, quite possibly, the top seeding for the City Section playoffs.
“This is just a stepping stone for us,” said Taft Coach Troy Starr, putting the game into perspective.
“I’m not going to downplay this game. This is a huge game for both of us at this point of the season. But our goal is the playoffs and then the City championship. That’s the biggest game of the year.”
It has been a two-team show in the West Valley League. Taft has outscored league opponents by an average of 43.8 points; Birmingham by a 41-point average.
The Toreadors, No. 5 in The Times’ rankings, have been the title favorite from the season’s start and have shown no sign of buckling under pressure. Their offense -- loaded with some of the top skill players in Southern California -- has averaged a section-best 43.4 points.
But it is an improved defense that could help Taft players hoist their first section trophy in four years.
Led by senior linebacker Lance Broadus and a secondary that features Steve Smith and brothers Paul and Mike Pratt, the Toreadors have five shutouts. New defensive coordinator Sean Pollard has helped tighten up that side of the ball.
Starr said a 55-34 victory over San Fernando on Oct. 11 got his team’s attention. The score was tied at 34-34 in the third quarter.
“We just went to sleep that game,” he said. “You win championships with defense. When we’ve had great teams it’s because we had a great defense that year.”
Birmingham can make a strong case for being the City’s second-best team -- if not its best after Friday. The Patriots’ losses have come against two unbeaten Southern Section powers, Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and Newhall Hart. They have soundly beaten the rest, including an impressive 38-14 victory at San Pedro in Week 2.
“Obviously, everybody has talked about this [game] since the summer,” said Ed Croson, Birmingham’s third-year coach. “We did a good job of keeping our focus on the task at hand.”
The Patriots have had Taft’s number the last two seasons, posting 41-14 and 40-21 victories after not beating the Toreadors since 1983. In those wins, Birmingham forced 10 turnovers.
“They’re formidable,” Starr said. “They shouldn’t have lost to [Notre Dame and Hart]. With that talent they’ve had, they should have been in the Coliseum last year.”
Croson said, however, that two victories doesn’t give them much of an edge.
“It is going to make us a lot more calm about the game,” he said. “We’re confident but we’re very respectful of their speed. You’d be crazy not to be.”
The two agree that this may not be their only meeting of the season. The last time two San Fernando Valley teams faced each other in the City championship game was in 1970, when Granada Hills defeated San Fernando.
“That’s a real possibility,” Starr said of a title-game matchup. “But I know Carson and Crenshaw have improved dramatically over the season.
“Year in and year out, if you want to win the City title, you’ve got to beat the teams over that hill.”
The playoff seeding meeting is Saturday morning and the most difficult chore may be finding 16 teams worthy of being in the Championship bracket.
Here’s a breakdown of which teams will be in the bracket:
* Certain: Taft, Birmingham, Carson, Van Nuys Grant, Roosevelt, Franklin, Venice, Sylmar, Crenshaw, Fremont, San Pedro.
* Fairly certain: Dorsey, Wilmington Banning.
* Not-so-certain: Fairfax, Eagle Rock, Jefferson, Granada Hills, Wilson.
There are cases to be made that some of the “not-so-certain” teams don’t deserve to be included in the main bracket, but if Fairfax, Eagle Rock and Jefferson pull off victories this week, they will get in. Fairfax plays at Venice, Eagle Rock plays host to Franklin and Jefferson plays host to Fremont.
Banning (4-5) would appear to need a victory over Carson on Thursday, but a loss shouldn’t relegate the Pilots to the invitational bracket because of their strong schedule.
Granada Hills (6-3) and Wilson (6-3) are better suited for the invitational playoffs but could get one of the final championship slots with a victory this week.
Three weeks ago, defending City champion Dorsey was in the middle of a disastrous season. The Dons had to forfeit their season-opening victory over Sylmar and had fallen to 1-5 with a shocking loss to Locke.
Since then, however, they have looked like the team that has been a perennial section powerhouse.
With victories over Jefferson, Manual Arts and Fremont, Dorsey (4-5, 3-1) can gain a share of the Coliseum League championship with a victory over Crenshaw.
City top 10: 1. Taft (9-0); 2. Birmingham (7-2); 3. Carson (7-2); 4. Venice (7-2); 5. Crenshaw (6-3); 6. Roosevelt (8-1); 7. Franklin (8-1); 8. Gardena (6-3); 9. Sylmar (7-2); 10. San Pedro (5-4).