Play­off Pre­view: Wild­cats hun­gry for win af­ter year on side­lines

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY TOM RONCO 27. Ramirez has helped the starter Casey Kline. PHOTO

BRAW­LEY — Af­ter miss­ing the play­offs last year for the first time since 1994, the Braw­ley Wild­cats will host a CIF-SDS Di­vi­sion III quar­ter­fi­nal game against the Morse High Tigers tonight at 7 at Warne Field.

“We are ready to get it on,” said Braw­ley head coach Jon Self.

“[The] kids are very ex­cited to be in the play­offs again … [and they] want to keep play­ing.”

Play­off-wise, last sea­son is prob­a­bly one both teams would like to for­get. Each failed to make the play­offs at the Di­vi­sion II level. Braw­ley fin­ished last sea­son ranked 13th — the last man out in a 12team field — while Morse was power-ranked 16th, the very bot­tom of the D-II bar­rel.

This sea­son both teams were re­aligned into D-III, with Braw­ley gar­ner­ing the four seed and Morse the num­ber five.

In last week’s open­ing round, the Tigers de­feated 12th-seeded Hill­top, 42-14, thus ad­vanc­ing to face the Wild­cats, who re­ceived a bye.

This week’s game will mark the sec­ond time in two sea­sons the two teams have met in the Val­ley. Braw­ley hosted Morse in a non-con­fer­ence matchup in 2017, in which the Wild­cats took an early 7-0 lead be­fore fall­ing be­hind the Tigers 16-14 at half, ul­ti­mately los­ing 24-14.

That game was a real bat­tle-in-the-trenches. Morse rushed for over 400 yards be­hind full­back Martell Irby’s 248 yards and 2 touch­downs, while the Wild­cats coun­tered with Michael Moreno, who had 91 yards on 16 car­ries, and op­tion-quar­ter­back Casey Kline, who ran 12 times for 82 yards, with each scor­ing a touch­down.

This year Irby is play­ing at UCLA, so Tiger se­nior Shamar Martin has stepped into Irby’s shoes — go go­ing so far as to mimic Irby’s Bruin com­mit­ment.

Against Hill­top, Martin was a force, rush­ing for 274 yards and four touch­downs.

Con­tain­ing him will be at the top of Braw­ley’s de­fen­sive to-do list.

“[He] is smaller (than Irby) but faster,” said Coach Self, “We want to make him run side­ways and not up field ... to con­tain him be­fore he can get started,”

On of­fense, the Wild­cats will stick to their strengths.

Moreno — who was in­jured on the first play of the Bell Game two weeks ago — is ex­pected to suit up, as is Kline (to a lesser ex­tent, as he has been play­ing with an in­jured shoul­der).

Moreno has been the fea­tured back in Braw­ley’s run-ori­ented of­fense all sea­son, ac­cru­ing — ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial game stats — 1,554 yards and 14 touch­downs on the ground, while Kline (who has only man­aged five full games) has run for 558 yards and passed for 309 more.

“Moreno will play, it’s a mat­ter of how ef­fec­tive he can be,” said Self.

“He’s al­ways a big part of our run­ning, and [as we try to] diver­sify the of­fense to keep de­fenses hon­est Casey (Kline) can help us at a num­ber of po­si­tions,” he con­tin­ued.

While Moreno plays the role of bell cow, other Wild­cats look to make mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tions in change-of-pace sit­u­a­tions, such as ju­nior half­back Nathan Tor­rez.

“I’m not the pounder, I run more on the counter and on short passes. The more they con­cen­trate on Michael it should open up some plays for me,” Tor­rez said.

Kline’s in­jury woes have forced a num­ber of Wild­cats to shuf­fle posi­tons, as the se­nior’s on-field im­pact goes well be­yond the quar­ter­back po­si­tion, but the mis­for­tune has been mit­i­gated by the team’s ros­ter ver­sa­til­ity, and many play­ers have had a hand in fill­ing the void.

Ju­nior Ja­cob Ramirez has taken most of the snaps at sig­nal-caller since Kline first went down, and has done a solid job guid­ing the of­fense, com­plet­ing 19 of 33 passes for 311 yards and two touch­downs and run­ning for 100 yards over the past five games — com­pil­ing a 4-1 record in the process.

On de­fense, it was sopho­more line­backer Chan­dler Self who was thrust into a more spot­lighted role.

“With Casey’s in­jury, it meant more re­spon­si­bil­ity for me, but I had been get­ting bet­ter each day and more and more play­ing time,” Self said. “And on de­fense, we work to­gether, we all feed off each other and rely on and trust each other. It was just my turn to step up.”

Se­nior Reyes Lizarraga played in the Morse game last sea­son and the vet­eran strong safety knows the Wild­cats must de­fend the run but re­spect the pass.

“We go over what pass­ing routes the op­pos­ing team will run and the var­i­ous for­ma­tions, and we con­di­tion ev­ery day, so I feel ready,” Lizarraga said. “Most of their skill play­ers look fast on film, but we’ve faced fast teams be­fore, so it’s noth­ing new for us.”

Tor­rez, also Braw­ley’s free safety, also un­der­stands what the de­fense’s job is against Morse.

“We will be fo­cus­ing on the run, and they are fast so we’ll be look­ing to con­tain them and be quick to the ball but not let them get be­hind us,” Tor­rez said.

Braw­ley’s Ja­cob Ramirez (2) sprints to his left dur­ing the Bell Game on Oct. Wild­cats to four wins af­ter tak­ing over at quar­ter­back fol­low­ing an in­jury to SER­GIO BASTIDAS

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