"I've got a championship game to coach and it seems like everybody in the state wants stuff for me." Newhall Hart Head Coach Mike Herrington can be forgiven if the last thing on his mind is talking to reporters. We all want to know what Hart has in store for the Mission Viejo Diablos in this weekend's championship game. Sure, I have deadlines, I need the information. He has to get the info, relay it to his coaches and players, and then drill it into them until the execution is flawless.
So that's it then, execution. "We're not going to change our game plan that much," Herrington told me Tuesday, "we just have to execute, and tackle."
Sounds simple enough, but Herrington knows that what sounds easy is often the toughest to achieve. Hart brought back only two starters on defense this year, and Mission's high-powered offense has steamrolled through the playoffs. "We haven't faced a back as big as (Chane) Moline this year, so our tackling is a key. If we're trying to make arm tackles he's going to run right through us."
Mission's balance on offense creates problems for any defense. Some teams have chosen to try and force the Diablos to either run or pass. Herrington told me that won't work. "We can't just stack the line, because Mission can throw the ball. We're not going to decide to stop the run, or stop the pass. We'll make adjustments during the game, like usual. When we find something that's working, we'll stick with it."
Hart's best chance to win looks to be a shoot-out. While Mission's offense is tough, their defense has been solid all year, and again balance is the word. "Their secondary is outstanding, but their defensive line is tough too. Sean (Norton, Hart's outstanding QB) is going to have to have a great game, and I think he's ready. For us to win our offensive line is the key, if they can open some holes for Daniel (Howell) and give Norton enough time to find an open receiver, we'll have a chance."
Norton has certainly found his share of open receivers. He comes into the game completing 66% of his passes on the year, and will surpass 3,500 yards on the season. The senior QB might actually be under recruited (and how often do you hear that), but has been getting some D1 offers. "Fresno State, Portland State, and Wyoming have been the big three talking to him," Herrington told me. With a good game against the highly touted Mission D though, those rumors that have Washington showing interest might materialize.
"Sean's done exactly what we hoped for this year," Herrington said. "He's been consistent and made smart decisions. He's certainly got the tools to play at the next level." When asked if there's a particular school he'd like to see Norton end up at next year Herrington almost laughed, "I stay out of that. He's going to go where he's going to go, I just hope he ends up in a good situation, but I won't try to influence him one way or another."
Norton has emerged as a true team leader this year. His stats certainly backup that label, but Herrington says that the team has really rallied around Sean this year, "He's got the respect of his peers. When these kids respect someone, they follow him. Sean's vocal, and he also leads by example. Nobody outworks Sean, and so the whole team has adopted that attitude. We will not be outworked."
Of course one of the many subplots in this year's final centers around the site of the game. After last year's "doctored ball" allegations Mission Viejo lost the right to host any playoff games. I told Coach Herrington that I didn't really expect him to answer the question, but I had to ask about last year's incident. He didn't hesitate, "We could have been playing with Nerf footballs last year and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. It had absolutely no effect on the outcome of the game. They just beat us."
It's refreshing to hear such candor from a coach. But it is also a great PR move. End the discussion. What else is there to say? The Coach told me it didn't matter, and that's good enough for me.
When asked if there was a key player for Hart this week, someone that needed to step up, Herrington sighed. "I don't think there's any one guy, because no one guy is going to beat Mission. They're a great team, and we'll need a great team effort to beat them." I pressed him, because I knew it would be the last question I'd ask, "I'll have to go back to the offensive line. If that group holds up we'll be in the game."
Certainly this will be the toughest game Hart has played this year, but it won't be as drastic a change as some other teams face in their championship games. Remember, Hart's non-conference schedule was one of the toughest (if not THE toughest) in the state. With Los Alamitos, Loyola and St. Bonaventure in the rearview mirror looking forward to Mission Viejo isn't as hard as it could be. Said Herrington,
"It will take a team effort, especially from our defense, but we'll be in this game."