To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
That’s the challenge facing the St. Joseph Knights as they get set to face No. 1 seed Lancaster Paraclete Friday night in the quarterfinal round of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 football playoffs at Antelope Valley College's stadium.
Paraclete (10-1), the Gold Coast Valley League champion, eliminated Ventura High 42-0 in last week’s first round in a game played at Paraclete’s on-campus stadium.
Paraclete won two championships last year — the CIF-SS Division 6 title followed by the Division 3AA state championship.
The Knights have made the CIF-SS playoffs six straight years, reaching the second round four years in a row.
St. Joseph (7-4), the second-place team out of the Los Padres League, edged Studio City’s Harvard-Westlake 49-44 at the Knights' Jay Will Stadium last Friday night.
“They’re a very good team and their head coach Dean Harrington is a very good coach,” said St. Joseph’s interim head coach Jim Chvala during Thursday’s practice. “But I don’t know if Paraclete has faced a team like us where we have five or six scoring threats on the field at the same time.”
The Knights’ chief threat is senior quarterback Dino Maldonado.
He leads a balanced offense that constantly mixes it up between running and passing plays.
“The last two schools we played (Santa Ynez and Harvard-Westlake) — their plan was to take away the running back and the pitch guy,” said Chvala. “But Dino can run and he can throw.”
The running back, Jayden Vargas, is a formidable weapon. Vargas has gained 1,573 yards and scored 15 touchdowns this season.
The main ‘pitch guy’ is Devin Guggia with 304 yards on the ground.
Maldonado has run for 366 yards and seven touchdowns, calling his own number mostly when he sees the defense has Vargas or Guggia covered.
“Paraclete is probably the toughest team we’re going to face in the playoffs,” said Maldonado. “But we’re going into this game like we do with every game we play — we always go into the game thinking we’re going to win.”
Although the Knights run slightly more than they pass, they pick up a lot of yards through the air.
Maldonado has completed 203 of 295 passes for 2,825 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Nate Guzman, with 69 catches for 863 yards and six touchdowns, is his favorite target.
Joseph Miller is the big play receiver with 33 receptions for 654 yards and 11 TDs.
Vargas, Guggia, Justin Wong, Joe Doud, Marc Rubalcaba and Mike Ramirez are also threats to get open for big gains from the wings.
The engine that powers the Knights is the offensive line, where center Alex Ontiveros and tackles Jacob Hernandez and Isaac Yanez open holes for runners or hold off defenders to give Maldonado time to pass.
“They’ve all got great feet — quick feet,” said offensive line coach Bill Brown. “They are great at blocking and providing pass protection. They are really good at picking up defensive line twists and blitzes.”
The three will also move over to defense where St. Joseph will face another high-powered offense.
Senior quarterback Brevin White, who is heading to Princeton next year, puts the ball in the air a lot.
“They throw the ball about 65 percent of the time,” said Chvala. “White is a very good quarterback and he’s got two great receivers — (seniors) Melquan Stovall and Andre Hunt.”
Stovall has offers to play next year at San Jose State and Florida Atlantic while Hunt has accepted a scholarship offer from USC.
If his top receivers are covered, White has several other options. Justin Haywood, Henry Ikahihifo and, coming out of the backfield, Amir Bankhead.
Bankhead is also the team’s leading rusher.
The Knights have had to overcome the loss of senior wide receiver and defensive back Mason Biely, who will remain on the sidelines for at last one more week.
But they have been bolstered by the return of junior kicker Nathan Halsell. He’ll be on the field for kickoffs and field goal attempts.
In Halsell’s absence, freshman kicker Brock Marcois has filled in admirably, nailing 10 straight points after in the Knights’ 70-7 win over San Luis Obispo and 11 straight in their 77-10 victory over Cabrillo.
“Brock will continue to kick the points after, he’s done a phenomenal job,” said St. Joseph kicking coach Al Garcia. “Nathan will give us a good opportunity for field goals — anything within 50 yards we should try. We need that big boost for kickoffs. He can really boot the ball into the end zone. It’s always good to have that weapon.”
“It is such a great honor to play a team like this. In years to come, the kids will remember this more than some of those 70-7 games,” said Chvala. “People thought we pulled off upsets in our last two games but we planned on winning those games. It’s never an upset if you plan on winning.”