I always thought bowl games were restricted to college teams and to the best two teams in the National Football League, North America's premier gridiron competition and the main gridiron competition of record around the world. Then I am reminded of the classic series called Eyeshield 21, which talks about the legacy of the Daimon Devil Bats and their ace, Sena Kobayakawa, who leads their senior high school to untold glory culminating in their crossroads game, the Christmas Bowl, the prep equivalent of the Koshien Bowl in the college ranks, the Japan X Bowl in the X League, and the Rice Bowl overall.
A school from near downtown Long Beach, St. Anthony High School, whose grounds are adjacent to the local parish church representing the great city of Long Beach, California, is on the verge of winning its first state championship in the history of its long program. According to Mike Guardabascio of the Press-Telegram, Long Beach Poly last won the title in 1919. This would end a 97-year wait for a state championship in football to return to the city.
It's hard to believe that St. Anthony, a team whose last CIF title came in 1948, would be on the verge of history, something along the lines of the Chicago Cubs ending a long streak of futility. These things don't happen very often and the Saints, managed by Mario Morales, come into the CIF Division 4A State Bowl as favorites to silence the Pleasant Valley High School Vikings of Chico, California, coached by Mark Cooley. It's as simple as the Four Horsemen of the Purple Apocalypse having big days: Johnny Buksa V, Byron "B.J." Busbee Jr., Talaun Patton and Nico Ragas. If the Four Horseman dominate on both sides of the ball, it's a straightforward affair.
No one would be wise to sell Pleasant Valley, the rivals of Chico High School, short. They are led by a quarterback named Kyle Lundquist, who passed for 2,016 yards and 23 yards during the regular season. Ryan Busby (different spelling) is the Vikings' main back, with 718 yards and eight majors, while Payton Williams had 604 receiving yards and eight touchdowns during the regular season. Trevor Owens (374 receiving yards, four TD) and Max Andersen (365 yards, five TD) are other seniors looking for a big day out to cap off their careers. Solomon Navarro is their leading tackler with 42 tackles and six sacks during the regular season.
PV have a 10-3 record, and were tied for first in the Eastern League of the Northern Section with a 4-1 record. Placed in Division II, they defeated Shasta 53-13 before delivering a famous 20-6 upset win over Paradise before bouncing Milpitas in Oroville 24-21.
As for St. Anthony, despite setbacks to the likes of fellow postseason participants Valley Christian and Long Beach Wilson, the Saints (ranked 695th in the nation, 61st in the state), finished the regular season 8-2 before going on an epic postseason run. St. Anthony finished 3-0 in the Santa Fe League and were placed in the CIF Southern Section Division 10 playoffs. A close call against Cerritos Gahr (24-21) was followed by blowout wins over Goleta Dos Pueblos (60-28) and Riverside Rubidoux (56-21) before a thrilling 33-32 win over Aquinas in San Bernardino that forced the Saints to take a long hard look at themselves in terms of game management and playing away from home.
However, St. Anthony recovered well enough to slam Yorba Linda 55-23 to win the Southern California 4A title and will be playing their bowl game at the same venue...wait for it...Veterans' Memorial Stadium, the home of the Long Beach City College Vikings and the 2016 Western State Bowl. So the stadium will have hosted two prep bowls and a junior college bowl game within the span on a month, and all this without Long Beach Poly or Los Alamitos being involved!
Buksa has passed for 2,815 yards and 31 touchdowns against just six interceptions while Patton has been a massive help in establishing a sound ground game, with 1,165 yards and 18 majors. Buksa has been on fire running the option game, rushing for 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns while Busbee has 460 rushing yards and nine TD. Another option for the future is sophomore Markell Sayles, with 794 yards and 11 scores on the ground.
As a receiver, Busbee had 1,023 receiving yards and eight majors, while Ragas has 919 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Aaron Strickland is a receiver for the future, with 341 yards and five touchdowns through nine games in action. Busbee is the leader in all-purpose yards for the Saints with 2,224 yards. As a special teams threat, Busbee has 367 kickoff return yards and 294 punt return yards and was explosive last weekend against the Mustangs. Junior Noah Nieto is the younger brother of senior Amitai Nieto and has 71 tackles to his credit. Junior Dominick Tucker leads in sacks with 8.0 to his name.
Based on stats and quality of opposition, this bowl is St. Anthony's to lose. If the Four Horsemen get to work early and often, this will be a done deal by three-quarter time. Pleasant Valley will need a pleasant performance from its Viking defense in the home of Long Beach's Vikings or it will be a more-than-unpleasant night out in Long Beach for the pride of the Northern Section in the battle for state bragging rights in the 4A Division of the California Interscholastic Federation. I guess high schools can have bowl games, too.
Prediction: St. Anthony 63, Pleasant Valley 21