Here’s a breakdown of the division:
The seeds: No. 1 Summit, No. 2 Citrus Hill, No. 3 Heritage, No. 4 Serrano.
Best first-round matchup: Oak Hills (8-2) at Silverado (5-5) -- Oak Hills entered Week 9 with an unbeaten record and even made an appearance in the ESPNLA Inland Empire top 10 before losing its final two games to finish third in the Mojave River League. Among its victories was a 20-6 triumph against Silverado in its final nonleague tune up Oct. 7. Silverado went 0-5 in nonleague play but found its stride while winning the Desert Sky League and likely feels as if it has a score to settle with the Bulldogs.
Toughest road: Summit (9-1) -- The SkyHawks are the favorite to win this division, but they’ll have to earn their stripes. They open against Paloma Valley, a team playing with nothing to lose after beating defending division champion Elsinore on Thursday to finish in a three-way tie for third in the Sunbelt League, then winning a tiebreaker to get into the playoffs. Summit would then get the winner of Oak Hills and Silverado.
Potential shocker: West Valley at Elsinore, first round – Heading into Week 9 of the regular season, Elsinore seemed a lock to secure one of the top three seeds in the division, but then lost a Sunbelt League showdown against Heritage and didn’t show up in the loss to Paloma Valley, though the Tigers were already guaranteed second place in league. How they respond from their first two-game losing streak in three years is a key question heading into the playoffs. With two 1,000-yard rushers in sophomore Kishawn Holmes and junior Chris Anderson, West Valley will surely test Elsinore’s psyche.
Darkhorse: Kaiser (7-3) -- Elsinore was a darkhorse when it won this title last season and Kaiser has a similar makeup heading into the postseason. The Cats missed out on their first Sunkist League title in 10 years with a 21-7 loss to Summit last week, but the program is accustomed to winning and has steadily improved as the season went along. If the Cats can find a way to scrape together three touchdowns, they’ll be tough for any team to beat.
Final analysis: Summit and Citrus Hill would seem the leaders of this pack, but it would be a huge mistake for any team to look past Heritage or Serrano. Heritage played the Central Division’s top-seeded team, Rancho Verde, closer than anyone this season, and Serrano came within 10 points of defeating Upland, the third-seeded team in the powerful Inland Division.
Championship prediction: This division might be the toughest to predict of any in the Inland Empire. As has been noted, the top four seeds are very even and then you have opponents such as Elsinore, Kaiser and Oak Hills that can step up at any time and play a big game. The difference last season came down to defense and Citrus Hill and Summit might be the most prepared in that department. Summit has the Inland Empire’s all-time interception leader in Boise State-bound defensive back Donte Deayon and Citrus Hill has a dominant defensive end in Roosevelt Pearson. Where the Hawks separate themselves from Summit is at running back. Citrus Hill features one of the I.E.’s best in Colorado-bound senior Davien Payne. Citrus Hill 30, Summit 28.