Freedom High, whose postseason hopes were once in serious jeopardy, is suddenly one of the hottest teams in the North Coast Section football playoffs.
The Falcons needed to win their final two regular season games just to qualify for the Division I tournament and were on the brink of elimination against Antioch on Nov. 1 before posting an overtime victory.
Now Freedom (6-5) is playing its best football of the year. Its NCS opener was a running clock victory over Foothill, a team the Falcons had lost to decisively earlier in the season.
It took getting healthy and remembering why they play the game for the Falcons to finally start clicking.
"We've got a good group of kids that are just playing and having fun again," coach Kevin Hartwig said. "That's the biggest thing -- that we're having fun playing football. It's contagious, and it's shown on the field the last few weeks."
With a top recruit in Joe Mixon, who was recently announced as one of 16 players nominated for the U.S. Army All-American national player of the year award, expectations were high for Freedom at the start of the year.
But Mixon was one of just two returning starters on offense, and their inexperience showed.
With the offensive line coming together to give Mixon the blocking he needs and sophomore quarterback Joe Sweeney improving by the week, No. 10 Freedom could be a dangerous matchup for No. 2 Pittsburg (9-2) in Friday's quarterfinals.
It's been an up-and-down season for Mixon, who has spent many weekends this fall jetting around the country to take his official college visits. He played through an ankle injury during much of league play, but he seemed healthy when he rushed for 281 yards and seven touchdowns last week.
"For the most part, he's had a great year," Hartwig said. "He's stayed true about being a team player."
HINTON BREAKS NCS RECORD: His team lost a shootout, but Moreau Catholic's Jason Hinton set an NCS record with 473 rushing yards in Saturday's first-round Division IV playoff game against visiting Piedmont.
Hinton was given the ball 51 times and scored five touchdowns in the 54-50 loss to the No. 10 Highlanders. His 473 rushing yards broke the single-game rushing mark set earlier this year by Pittsburg's Harris Ross, who tallied 464 yards and six touchdowns on 21 carries against Monte Vista.
But even a historic performance from the junior couldn't carry Moreau Catholic past Piedmont in a wild second half. The Highlanders' couldn't slow Hinton, and the Mariners had their hands full with Atu Ohuafi, who had 150 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns four ways -- two receiving, one rushing, an interception return and a kickoff return.
"In the second half they had a hard time stopping (Hinton)," Moreau Catholic coach Andrew Cotter said. "That's the foundation of our offense, and if they're not going stop it, we're just going to keep running the same play."
NORCAL HOPES: The Oakland Section playoffs start this week with a clear favorite. Not only did McClymonds High win all its OAL games this season, it outscored its opponents 217-24 in the five wins.
But if the Warriors (8-2 overall) win the Silver Bowl for a fourth straight season, will they be picked to return to the Division IV northern regional championship game?
In the Nov. 18 CalHiSports.com CIF State Bowl Game Divisions Rankings, McClymonds is ranked No. 2 in Division IV in the north behind Central Catholic-Modesto (10-1). The Warriors lost to the Raiders 38-24 on Sept. 13.
"I believe if we win out, we should get selected," McClymonds coach Michael Peters said.
But first, McClymonds needs to be victorious in the section playoffs. On Friday, the Warriors host Oakland Tech (4-6) and Skyline (3-7) hosts Oakland (3-7) in first-round games. Both kickoffs are scheduled for 3 p.m.
Staff writer Phil Jensen contributed to this notebook. Follow Stephanie Hammon at twitter.com/stephhammon.