Central Catholic football coach Roger Canepa began Monday morning with 15 minutes in the steam room, knowing the week ahead would be an overload of film and practice.
Now in his 34th year, Canepa will do just about anything to relieve the tension and stress of the postseason.
The second-seeded Raiders (10-1) host No. 3 Inderkum (11-0) in the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoffs on Friday evening. The Tigers are 11-0 and boast one of the top rushing attacks in the state.
“This is what it’s supposed to be like when you get here,” said Canepa, whose team whipped No. 10 Elk Grove, 49-7. “You get a bye because you’ve busted your butt this season, but when you get to the semis, you got dudes. All the top seeds made it.”
Not all of them.
No. 4 Granite Bay was blanked by fifth-seeded Jesuit, 42-0, and the Marauders travel to No. 1 Del Oro in Friday’s other semifinal. Should the Raiders beat Inderkum and advance to their first D-II final since 1982, a familiar opponent will be waiting. Jesuit and Del Oro are responsible for ending the Raiders’ last two seasons.
Jesuit chased Central Catholic away in 2016, 42-14, while Del Oro edged the Raiders 23-12 in a semifinal game last fall. Canepa counts those losses as Central Catholic’s indoctrination to Division II football.
This time around, he believes the Raiders, a four-time CIF State champion and the most decorated program in section history, are equipped to go the distance.
Central Catholic is as balanced as any team left in the tournament. Led by quarterback Dalton Durossette and a veteran offensive line, the Raiders have scored 48 or more points in six consecutive weeks and rank ninth in the section in touchdowns per game with 6.3. That number is skewed, though, because Central Catholic has rested most of its starters in the second half most of the season.
Junior running back Minaya Olivo has six touchdowns in the last two games, while fellow junior Sithri Price has developed into a versatile weapon and Durossette’s top target. Price has touchdowns in multiple games, as well. Defensively, Central Catholic is giving up the ninth fewest points in the section.
“I think we’re clicking. We just got to keep it going,” Canepa said. “We’re putting bodies on bodies and executing, our guys believe in what we’re doing, and we’ve pushed them hard.
“We work hard. There’s a reason why we win all the time. Everyone's got athletes, but our guys work hard. Not saying everyone else doesn’t work hard, but we grind. Our practices, it’s not a picnic out there.”
The Tigers are a deserving dance partner.
Led by legendary coach Terry Stark, Inderkum attacks with a fully-stocked wing-T offense. The Tigers average 400 rushing yards and three players account for 60 percent of the team’s touchdowns: Raymond Brown, 18; Aaron Espero, 14; Johnny Williams, 14.
Defensively, Inderkum creates pressure in the backfield with Devon Williams, Isaiah Ward, Brandon Knott and Shamar Brown, all of whom have at least five sacks. Williams tops the team with nine sacks.
“They look like us: Very athletic and good up front,” Canepa said. “I think we’ve played a tougher schedule, which is maybe why we got the two seed, but they’re pummeling people.”
Inderkum vanquished No. 11 Downey, 69-29. The Knights led 14-13 early in the second quarter, but were outscored 56-15 the rest of the way. Inderkum answered the Knights’ go-ahead score with two touchdowns in a matter of minutes and 22 unanswered to close the half.
Canepa says the Raiders are ready for the challenge ahead. Well versed in the wing-T, Central Catholic draws confidence from its 54-14 victory at Oakdale, which boasts a suped-up wing-T.
If Monday’s steam session accomplished anything, it was this: In each of his team’s section and state title runs, defense defined the Raiders’ excellence.
“There’s one ingredient to winning,” Canepa said. “If you play great defense, you don’t have to score. If you hold people to one or two scores, you’re in every game. You have to play great defense to win. Every year we've won, you have to play great defense and we’re playing great right now.”
Follow James Burns on Twitter @jburns1980, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.