Would a victory over Bellarmine tonight be a greater accomplishment for the Terra Nova football program than its 2010 Central Coast Section Division III championship? Than its streak of three straight Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division titles?
The answer to both in this corner is a resounding Yes.
A few of the reasons: the level of difficulty, the size of the stage and the opportunity to improve the perception of the program.
Simply put, tonight’s Open Division quarterfinal against Bellarmine at San Jose City College may well be the highest-profile game in Terra Nova history.
Since the inception of the multi-division format of the CCS playoffs in 1980, the Tigers have never played in the designated top bracket. Until now.
Yes, the Open Division, which has been the section’s elite bracket since it was introduced in 2004, has lost a good chunk of its luster this year thanks to the exodus of several high-profile programs to the enrollment divisions. Nevertheless, when a single division boasts a California Interscholastic Federation state bowl favorite (Bellarmine) and a defending state champion (Palo Alto), you know it will still be among the toughest sectional playoff fields in Northern California.
Terra Nova couldn’t have a more difficult assignment in its maiden Open voyage. Bellarmine, which went 7-0 to claim its fourth West Catholic Athletic League title in the last five years, is widely considered the Open Division front-runner.
The Bells (9-1) narrowly missed handing De La Salle its first loss to a Northern California team since 1991 in a 26-23 overtime defeat to start the year. Ever since, they’ve been unbeatable and are now gunning for their third Open championship in four years.
Meanwhile, Terra Nova (8-2) is in uncharted waters. The Tigers haven’t faced a WCAL team in the playoffs since 2007, when they fell 44-16 to Riordan. But that was in Division III.
In 2002, a 10-0 Terra Nova team that won the PAL Bay Division met St. Francis and lost 31-19. But the Lancers, who went on to win a Division III co-championship, were just 5-5 entering the playoffs.
Perhaps the closest parallel to the challenge Bellarmine poses lies in the 2000 postseason, when the Tigers faced a 10-0 Los Gatos team led by Trent Edwards. Los Gatos won 42-14, its first step toward the Division III crown.
Whatever the case, Terra Nova will have its hands full with the Bells. Quarterback Travis McHugh and running back Tim Crawley deftly run Bellarmine’s version of the scrum offense, helping their team average 37.6 points while playing a formidable schedule. Terra Nova figures to benefit some from having faced a similar style of offense in two of its last three games – The King’s Academy and Half Moon Bay – but those teams don’t have comparable athletes.
The Tigers’ offense also will get its toughest test in years. Bellarmine has allowed just 12.4 points per game, and has yet to give up more than 26 points. Terra Nova averages 38.1 points, with a season low of 27 points. Something has to give.
Bellarmine has the experience and the pedigree. The Bells are in the Open field for the seventh straight year and have advanced to at least the semifinals the last four years. Moreover, an outright WCAL champion has never lost an Open quarterfinal.
Meanwhile, Terra Nova is the third smallest public school to qualify in the Open Division’s nine years. Scotts Valley (2006) and San Lorenzo Valley (2005) suffered quick exits.
And Terra Nova is just the second Peninsula Athletic League program to make the Open field. Aragon earned a bid in the Open’s first three years, compiling a record of 1-3.
So, tonight’s game represents a historic opportunity for the Tigers. And a spectacular challenge.
No matter the outcome, it’s bound to be memorable.