Column: Young teams get big chance in state bowl games
Lake Balboa Birmingham football players were lined up Saturday night to receive their City Section Open Division championship trophy at Valley College.
Amid the celebration, it was a challenge trying to find the kid wearing No. 26 who bulldozed his way for 292 yards rushing and four touchdowns in a 49-13 rout of Garfield. A teammate finally found him.
My first question was very simple: Where did you come from?
“I kind of came out of the blue,” he said.
Naiim Morgan wasn’t kidding.
He showed up before the football season began having moved from Las Vegas. Coach Jim Rose told him he was overweight and too slow to play receiver. He volunteered to play scout team running back at 5 feet 11 and 196 pounds. He has since lost nearly 20 pounds, gained speed and the rest is history.
In the last two playoff games, he has rushed for 215 yards and one touchdown against Wilmington Banning and the 292 yards and four touchdowns against Garfield in helping the Patriots win their third straight City Section Open Division championship. And you want to know what’s the best of all?
“It’s a great thing we have another week to play,” Morgan said. “It’s going to be fun.”
The CIF state championship bowl pairings were announced Sunday. Every section champion gets to participate. There are 55 in the state in 15 divisions. For previously unknown players like Morgan and young players elevating their games at the right time, it’s another opportunity to gain exposure and attention for future endeavors.
Birmingham will open at home Saturday, hosting Laguna Hills (13-1) in a 3-A regional bowl game. Laguna Hills has its own top running back in Troy Leigber, who rushed for 205 yards and two touchdowns in the Southern Section Division 7 title game against Santa Clarita Golden Valley.
No team is surging more than Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, which won the Southern Section Division 2 championship on Saturday night by knocking off previously unbeaten Inglewood 23-7 behind sophomore running back Dane Dunn, the co-Mission League MVP.
Sierra Canyon was once 1-3. Birmingham was once 1-4. They’re now 10-4 and 9-4, respectively, with possibly two more weeks of games. Both are young teams improving each week, creating excitement among their fan bases. Sierra Canyon will open Friday night at home in the Division 1-AA regional bowl game against San Diego Section champion Lincoln (11-1) and star running back Roderick Robinson.
Lincoln lost to Mission Hills Bishop Alemany 14-7 in its second game of the season. Sierra Canyon defeated Bishop Alemany 42-0 in league play. The winner gets to face either Concord De La Salle or Folsom on Dec. 9.
The Open Division state championship game is set. Bellflower St. John Bosco (12-1), the Southern Section Division 1 champion, will face Central Coast Section champion San Mateo Serra (13-0) at 8 p.m. Dec. 10 at Saddleback College.
The Braves will be heavy favorites, but Serra coach Patrick Walsh promises, “It’s one of the best teams I’ve coached. I’m going to ride with these guys. I know everyone wants to be here and will give everything they got.”
Unbeaten Yorba Linda (14-0) was put in the 1-A regional bowl game, hosting Bakersfield Liberty on Saturday night.
It remains to be seen how competitive some of these matchups will be.
At this time next season, Sierra Canyon could find itself being mentioned with St. John Bosco and Santa Ana Mater Dei. Somebody has to accept the challenge, so why not the young and improving Trailblazers?
This was supposed to be the year to beat Birmingham in the City Section because of its youth. Morgan, a senior, has surpassed 1,000 yards rushing. Offensive coordinator Andrew Miramontes was giddy watching him run away from Garfield defenders.
“Wait a minute — where is that breakaway speed coming from?” he said.
Garfield coach Lorenzo Hernandez said, “We found out he’s very physical, powerful and has all the attributes a running back should have. He has a lot of durability and keeps coming at you.”
The state bowl games aren’t just for winning more trophies and plaques. They are another opportunity to create a memory to last a lifetime and maybe even catch the eye of a college recruiter.
Hernandez warns opponents of Birmingham, “The last five weeks, they’ve turned it on.”
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