By winning the North Coast Section Division III championship this year, the El Cerrito High School football team put the Tri-Counties Athletic League Rock Division on the map. What St. Mary's and Salesian did sent it into another stratosphere.
El Cerrito, St. Mary's and Salesian, all teams in the newly formed TCAL Rock Division, all won NCS titles and a fourth Rock Division team, Valley Christian of Dublin, fell to Salesian in the Division 5 championship game.
"In the history of the NCS, I'm not sure that's ever happened," Salesian coach Chad Nightingale said. "It was like a perfect storm. To get all the teams into the playoffs that we did, and then to perform as well as we did, well that's pretty exciting for our league."
The Panthers (10-4) and the Pride (8-5) were the least likely teams from the Rock Division to play in an NCS championship. Both teams were seeded fifth in their respective divisions, Salesian in the Division V playoffs and St. Mary's in the Division IV.
The young Panthers from Berkeley probably had the toughest journey to a final. Their four losses were to Division II champion Miramonte, Division III winner El Cerrito, Salesian and Division V runner-up Valley Christian.
"We didn't think it was improbable, we knew we had a good team," St. Mary's coach Keith Minor said. "It was just a matter of us finding our way.
"Once we hit our stride, we knew we had a great chance to do well."
The path through the playoffs included wins over Fort Bragg (48-13), St. Helena (24-7), an upset of top seed San Marin (35-29) and a clinching 49-21 victory over Fortuna Saturday, Dec. 14 at Humboldt State University.
The title game was originally scheduled for the previous week but due to inclement weather and unsafe travel conditions, the game was switched to the following week.
"We've played teams up there so we knew how we would travel, we just didn't plan for the weather," Minor said.
It was the first league title for St. Mary's and El Cerrito, two of the East Bay's finest football programs in the past few decades with legendary coaches and a long list of players who have gone to the next level and beyond.
"I think the perception of our league will change based on the performance of our teams this year. When you start putting our teams together, good things are going to happen."
Against Fortuna in the championship game, the senior trio of quarterback Ian Bonde, receiver Liam Godfrey and running back Lorenzo Logwood carried the offensive workload.
The Panthers also forced four turnovers and held Fortuna to just seven points after the first quarter.
"This was a great accomplishment for St. Mary's," Nightingale said.
El Cerrito (12-3) was the cream of the Rock Division crop this season with a handful of Division I prospects, led by UCLA-bound Adarius Pickett.
Pickett, the son of 1980s El Cerrito standout Antoine Pickett, was the main cog for the Gauchos, who won back to back TCAL Rock Division titles.
They avenged an earlier loss to Campolindo, a 49-34 shellacking in the Division III semifinals and then turned back top seed Marin Catholic, 54-38 Dec. 6 at Burrell Field in San Leandro to claim the NCS banner, the school's first.
"El Cerrito really added credibility to our league," Nightingale said. Against Marin Catholic in the title game, Pickett rushed for a game-high 255 yards and four touchdowns as El Cerrito avenged a loss to Marin Catholic in last year's NCS title game. The Gauchos led 41-3 at one point of the game before the Wildcats rallied in the second half.
The Gauchos were also helped by the twin tandem of Keilan and Keith Benjamin, all league quarterback and wide receiver.
The duo connected for three touchdowns and Arizona State-bound Jalen Harvey scooped up a fumble and raced 36 yards for another score.
El Cerrito's season ended Dec. 14 in a 42-7 loss to Sacred Heart Prep of Atherton in the California Interscholastic Federation Division III Northern California regional championship at De Anza High School.
Salesian defeated No. 2 seed Valley Christian 19-13 Nov. 30 to win its fourth NCS title.
Senior running back De'Angelo Hernandez rushed for 207 yards and two second-half touchdowns and avenged an earlier 21-12 loss to Valley Christian Nov. 9 during the regular season.Salesian had a good bit of fortune to make the playoffs. An earlier season forfeit allowed the Pride into the playoffs, Nightingale said.
"And then we won all three playoffs games on the road," the coach said.
Salesian, a school of 400 students located in Richmond, defeated St. Vincent de Paul 42-21, Middletown 21-13 before it knocked off Valley Christian at Chabot College in Hayward in the Division 5 finale.