Playoff Preview: Wildcats hungry for win after year on sidelines
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