Friday’s showdown between two unbeaten, state-ranked teams for Bay Valley Athletic League supremacy also probably decided which one of the two would be in the new CIF North Coast Section Open Division and which one would not. Oakley Freedom’s 41-38 win over Pittsburg featured three lead changes in the fourth quarter with the go-ahead TD coming with just 1:50 left.
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The Freedom High of Oakley football team has never been this good before. It already was in uncharted waters after the Falcons blasted preseason state-ranked Antioch and its superstar running back Najee Harris 65-28 one week after that team only lost 28-21 to NorCal king and two-time defending CIF State Open Division champion De La Salle of Concord.On Friday, head coach Kevin Hartwig took his team to Pittsburg where another big step forward was achieved with a 41-38 victory.
After Pittsburg had taken a 38-35 lead with 3:39 left in the game on a 10-yard run by Montaz Thompson, the Falcons answered with an 80-yard scoring drive that was capped on a 34-yard TD pass from Jonathan Pierce to Giles Jackson. Pitt still had 1:50 left on the clock, but its possible game-winning drive was stopped by a fourth-down incomplete pass with 45 seconds remaining.
Both teams entered unbeaten at 8-0 and first-place was on the line in the Bay Valley Athletic League. There was a bigger picture in play as well.
The host Pirates were No. 13 in this week’s Cal-Hi Sports State Top 25 rankings while Freedom had moved up to a position right behind them in the last two weeks.
This year’s new CIF North Coast Section Open Division also was on a lot of minds among the fans in a crowded stadium on a slightly rainy night.
The format for that division, approved by the NCS Board of Managers last spring, calls for there to be just four teams involved. Since De La Salle figures to be one of them, which has won 24 straight NCS Division I titles and six CIF Open Division state titles in seven years, the champion of that division also would just about be an automatic selection for the CIF Open Division state final. The runner-up team from that division also is eligible to be chosen for a CIF Northern California bowl game with a possible chance at winning a CIF state title.
Here’s the catch, though, that made Friday’s game between Freedom and Pitt almost seem like a round of Survivor: Since there are no teams from outside of the NCS in Division I that will be in the new Open Division, the runner-up team in that new division is going to be taking away a NorCal bowl bid for whichever team wins the NCS Division I title.
It’s not like the CIF gave the NCS two extra NorCal bowl slots this year. The section got one so it’s not possible for it to send all of its champions from D1, D2, D3, D4, D5 and two from the Open Division. At this point, the NCS D1 champ is staying home.
Freedom’s players and coaches are aware of those scenarios, but stressed they’re just going one week at a time and will only be concerned in the next week about playing their rivals from Liberty of Brentwood.
“This week we’re 9-0, but tomorrow we’re back to being 0-0,” Hartwig said. “You look at this game and one of us was going to go one way (toward the Open Division) and one of us was going to go the other.”
“Yeah, we know some about that stuff,” said Freedom running back Ronnie Rivers, who helped the Falcons overcome second half deficits of 24-14 and 31-21 by scoring on a 93-yard kickoff return and 70-yard run. “We just had to make sure we did our best against Pitt. We are still just 0-0 now.”
Monte Vista of Danville, which was No. 11 in last week’s state rankings, could have made life easier for the Freedom-Pitt loser regarding the NCS Open Division by losing in its game on Friday to arch-rival San Ramon Valley. Instead, the Mustangs topped the Wolves 32-20 to improve to 9-0 and set themselves up nicely for next Friday’s showdown at De La Salle, which was No. 8 in the state and won Friday 76-0 against James Logan of Union City.
The projected NCS Open Division foursome after Friday, therefore, would be De La Salle and Monte Vista (no matter what happens in that game) plus Freedom and now Clayton Valley of Concord. The Ugly Eagles have a loss this year, but that was to state-ranked Helix of La Mesa and they’ve been in two CIF state bowl games in the last two years. Clayton Valley does still have to get past Campolindo of Moraga (7-2) in its league finale next week, however, so there is hope for Pitt to still get in. The Pirates will be taking on their arch rival from Antioch next week and that won’t be easy, either.
Pierce only completed 10 of 23 passes, but had 223 yards because Freedom’s receivers, including Jackson (a sophomore) and Baylei Coston (a junior), often won jump balls with Pittsburg defenders draped on them.
“No, not at all,” Pierce said when asked if he’s ever concerned about throwing to his receivers in those situations. “I have full trust in them. We just played hard 100 percent of the game and kept our heads high no matter what.”
Rivers also threw a 9-yard TD pass to Pierce for Freedom’s first score and finished with 157 yards rushing. Thompson ended up with three TDs rushing and 106 yards for Pitt.