With apologies to all the area football teams toiling in playoff competition this week, the hottest football ticket on Friday, Nov. 9, should be the one to enter the Pierce College stadium.
At 7:30 p.m., San Fernando High and Birmingham High will be on the field against each other for the first time since 2001.
Seventeen years is eons in football time, particularly for two respected City Section programs that have more than a couple of championship football banners on their gym walls, and are geographically separated by only 10 miles.
But meeting they are, Tigers and Patriots, in the quarterfinals of the Los Angeles City Section’s Open Division.
“It’s a great game for the San Fernando Valley,” Tigers Coach Robert Garcia said. “It’s a game to represent [two sides] — them in the West Valley and us the East side. For the kids, it really means a lot, maybe the next big rivalry game.
“We’re two of the top teams in the San Fernando Valley. And I would love to play them the next couple of years, especially with the rise of the private schools; that’s kinda brought the City down a little bit. But I’m sure a lot of people are gonna come out and support this game. I hope [the game] is something people remember for awhile.”
Patriots Coach Jim Rose is equally unafraid to define Friday’s game in monumental terms.
“I think it's the biggest [City] game the Valley’s had” since Birmingham and Taft played for the 2002 City championship, Rose said. “I still think San Fernando and Birmingham are a ‘2’ and a ‘3’ [seed], however you want to put us. I think this game is going to be fun. Hopefully it draws a big crowd on both sides. That will make it even more fun.”
On paper, the matchup seems as even as it can get. Both teams have overall 8-2 records. Each won its league — Birmingham in the West Valley, and San Fernando in the Mission Valley. Because of looser transfer rules, both teams can appeal to the same kind of high-quality player.
But unlike that last meeting on Sept. 28, 2001, in the regular season — with Birmingham coming out the victor in a thriller, 46-41 — the stakes are higher. This is the playoffs. The winner will move on to the Open Division semifinal, with a probable matchup against four-time defending City champion Narbonne High of Harbor City. The loser will see its season end, and probably be reminded about it from the winner until the 2019 football season starts.
The players embrace what’s at stake. Even though both coaching staffs are doing their best to quell any inflammatory trash talk on social media and other outlets, both teams said they are not shying away from the moment or the challenge.
“I feel it’s big because it’s two big-time Valley schools, two powerhouses,” said San Fernando running back and strong safety Kyle Bryant, a senior. “To us, this will show who really runs the Valley (in City football) and who can compete in the Open Division.”
Teammate and defensive end/linebacker Jaivontrel Eavan Turner, a senior, agrees with Bryant. “I feel like a win in this game will show who the best in the Valley is. For years it’s been ‘I want to go to Birmingham’ or ‘I want to go to San Fernando.’ This game will show who the better team is.”
At Birmingham, defensive back Abdul-Lateef Audu, a senior is happy to have a game to play. The season-ender against Taft was forfeited by the Toreadors, and all eight Open Division teams get an extra week off because there are only three rounds of playoffs instead of four. That means by Friday, the Pats will have gone three weeks since their last game against Chatsworth on Oct. 19.
That was on top of the fact that Birmingham never had a home game this season because the renovations to their stadium field were constantly delayed. It is why the game is being played at Pierce College.
“It’s a bad thing and a good thing we were off that long,” Audu said. “[The good thing is] we had a longer time practicing, and I feel we’re better than we could have been if we had not had that time.
“This game means a lot. I feel there hasn’t been a big game like this since when Taft and Birmingham had their rivalry. Us playing someone that is in the Open Division, too? That’s a big game for everybody. Not a lot of [Valley] City teams make it to the Open Division.”
Lineman Mher Alikyan admits, it was “a little discouraging” not having a true home game in his senior year. But, he said, the Patriots have adjusted and been toughened by the experience.
“When we go to other team’s stadiums, we treat it like ours,” Alikyan said.
It might not take another 17 years for both teams to play each other. Garcia has reached out to Rose about scheduling regular season games. And this week, Rose sounded as if the possibility should be explored further.
“To me, San Fernando has replaced Taft in the upper echelon, and maybe this could bring a good rivalry — which would make it even more fun down the road,” he said.
But that is further down the road. The immediate confrontation is Friday night. And players from both sides sounded as if they expected a large turnout.
“I know our fans will turn out,” Alikyan said. “It’s [big] because it’s playoffs and because we haven’t played each other in 17 years. It’s causing a lot of hype. I believe there are gonna be a lot of people there to witness it.”
“I know our fans will show up and support us,” Bryant said. “I don’t know about their’s, [but] I know our side will be packed. Our fans are down with us from the beginning to the end. Win or lose, they will be there.”
Of course there’s also that little matter of winning the game.
“We have to execute everything — our defensive plan and our offensive plan,” Garcia said of San Fernando. “We have to play together and not let adversity separate us as a team. They’re gonna score; we’re gonna score. The team that breaks down first…that could be the difference.”
“We have to come out of the gate [playing well],” Rose said of Birmingham. “Hopefully we’re not too sluggish because it will have been three weeks. We get it. We tried to stay to the ‘norm as much as possible, and I know people can normally be a little flat coming out of a bye week. I just hope it’s not sloppy. We’ve got to be crisp. Because practicing against ourselves is not like playing San Fernando.”
To see the list of other prep football playoff games for this week, visit www.sanfernandosun.com.