When the Berkeley Yellowjackets and the Pinole Valley Spartans face off tonight, there will be plenty on the line. A huge step toward the league championship and an automatic bid to the North Coast Section playoffs, a seven-game Pinole Valley winning streak and bragging rights for the next year are among the spoils the winner will take home.
With both teams sitting at 4-0 in Alameda-Contra Costa Athletic League play, the only teams without a loss thus far, tonight’s game at Pinole Valley is a de facto championship. It’s the second straight season the game will decide the league title, with the Spartans winning last year’s finale 35-14 for a second straight undefeated ACCAL record.
“I’ve been waiting the whole year for this game,” Berkeley linebacker Owen Goldstrom said Wednesday. “Beating Pinole Valley has been our goal since we moved into this league.”
But while Pinole Valley (6-1 overall) was the favorite last year behind star running back DeAndre MacFarland, the Yellowjackets are favored in tonight’s game. There’s little question Berkeley (7-0 overall) is the more talented team, with tremendous speed at every skill position and a defense that has been strong all season. But Berkeley head coach Matt Bissell still thinks of his squad as the underdog.
“I don’t think we can be favored until we beat [Pinole Valley],” Bissell said. “Someone has to knock them off the top before becoming the favorite.”
Bissell will have all his weapons at his disposal tonight, unlike last year when 10 Berkeley players were ruled ineligible due to academics in the week leading up to their showdown with the Spartans. While some Yellowjackets are still having grade issues, they lucked out with this year’s game coming earlier in the season; the first official grades don’t come out until next week.
Defensive tackle Jamal Johnson-Lucas was one of the Berkeley players who watched from the sideline as their teammates fell to Pinole Valley last season.
“I can’t tell you how painful it was to have to watch that happen,” Johnson-Lucas said. “It’s not a feeling you want, knowing you let down your teammates and coaches like that.”
Berkeley defensive coordinator Ronald Moore said the suspensions cost his team the game and league title last season.
“The game before I had a Magnum, and then we had to play Pinole with a .22 [caliber],” Moore said. “You can’t go to war with a .22.”
Johnson-Lucas and his linemates bear most of the pressure on the Berkeley defense, as they will have to stop the Spartan running game that features a three-headed monster at tailback. Ronnie Jones, Damarea Johnson and Fontino Hardy are all solid backs who can break big gains. While not as explosive without MacFarland, who ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns in last season’s game, the Spartans can wear an opponent down with their stable of running backs behind a huge offensive line.
Adding to the offense is the development of wide receiver Thomas Decoud, a 6-foot-4 basketball star who specializes in coming down with jump balls. Although the Spartan passing game has been spotty this season, Decoud is always a threat to make a big play and draws double-team coverage much of the time.
Moore plans to put his best cornerback, senior Robert Young, on Decoud and let the rest of his defense concentrate on stopping the run for the most part.
“You have to know where Decoud is at all times. He’s their big playmaker,” Moore said. “I’m not going to let him beat us. If we need to give Rob help, we’ll give him help.”
On the other side of the ball, the Yellowjackets will need to establish the run early to keep the pressure off of quarterback Dessalines Gant, who will be starting just his fifth game. In Berkeley’s only close game of the year, a 34-28 overtime win over Hercules, Gant threw five interceptions as the opposing safeties sat back and defended the deep pass.
The Jackets have been working on the short passing game for the last two weeks, but if they can’t run the Spartans will drop back and wait for Gant to make a mistake. Fullback Aaron Boatwright will likely see a lot of carries, and his success will determine how aggressive Pinole Valley can be on defense. If Boatwright can force the Spartans to put more people near the line of scrimmage, Gant will have more room to find speedy wideouts Sean Young and Roberto McBean for big plays, as well as tight ends Robert Hunter-Ford and Rodney Jones in the middle on play-action.