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Valencia faces tested Ventura

Vikings battle ball-control team in first round of the playoffs

Posted: November 20, 2008 10:51 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2008 4:51 a.m.

One way to measure a team's ability is by the opponents it has faced.

If that's how you want to measure Ventura High, then Valencia football has a tough matchup in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division playoffs.

Currently ranked No. 7 in the Northern Division poll, the Vikings will take on the Channel League's Cougars at 7 p.m. tonight at Dr. Paul A. Priesz Stadium.

The Cougars finished second in league behind powerhouse St. Bonaventure with a 6-4 overall record.

"You can see they play tough and that they play very physical," said Valencia head coach Larry Muir. "They play with a lot of emotion and in a lot of those big games they came out and played well."

Ventura head coach Brad Steward, in his eighth year, has led the Cougars to six playoff appearances going as far as the championship game in 2004 where the they lost to St. Bonaventure 42-14.

The following season, Ventura made it to the semifinal round coming up short in a loss to Moorpark.

The Cougars did clinch a CIF title in 2000 when they were a Division IV squad.

Steward said that although the Channel League is not as competitive as the Foothill League, his preparation for more staunch competitors starts in the non-league schedule.

Ventura faced the Division's No. 2 and 3 teams Moorpark and Oxnard in earlier season contests. Despite losing to both ball clubs, Steward said the matchups served as a learning tool.

"We have to get better on both sides of the ball," he said. "We've done a nice job at some things but we have to be more consistent in the red zone. We have to continue to get better in the playoffs."

Steward said he is well aware of the competition that awaits at Valencia.

"Their guys up front are solid. It's evident that they are very well coached," he said. "The defense has great technique."

But Steward said his teams' biggest task will be stopping the Vikings offense.

"That quarterback scares me," he said, referring to Dominick Solley. "He's very elusive and a strong playmaker. He throws the ball well, but he's also good on the run."

Along with Solley, Steward acknowledged that stopping wide receiver Zack Tartabull and running back Jordan Thompson will be an arduous task.

Besides that usual lineup of playmakers, Brock Vereen and Michael Hernandez, who returns from injury, will hold down the Vikings' defensive backfield.

"Having Michael back is a huge boost for our defense just in terms of his leadership and experience," Muir said.

But the Cougars aren't without their own weapons.

Sophomore quarterback Keihan Gibbs leads the Ventura offense. Gibbs has thrown for 832 yards.

"He's going to be something very special," Steward said. " He has a strong arm and runs the ball a lot. He makes a big play when you need him to."

Yet Gibbs has completed only 46 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns to seven interceptions.

Matt Melnar leads in the Cougars offensive backfield with 798 yards on 151 carries.

"We've been about 70 percent run because we've played some teams that are offensively explosive," Steward said. "We like to make the game as short as possible."

And although their numbers don't stack up to those of the Vikings, Steward said his Cougars have a lot more than physical prowess to overcome formidable teams.

"Our main strength is the kids' character," he said. "They love the game of football and they come out and play hard. We don't have an outstanding offense or defense but it's a team effort and a love of the game."


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