The first surprise in the division is that La Habra isn't the No. 1-seeded team. Of course, once the Highlanders began losing to Trinity League opponents in a gauntlet no other team in the division would dare attempt, they suffered in the rankings. It may be irrelevant since it's on the opposite bracket as Villa Park, but make no mistake: four-time defending champion La Habra -- winner of six titles in the last nine years -- is the team to beat.
The seeds: 1. Villa Park (10-0), 2. La Habra (7-3), 3. El Toro (9-1), 4. Cypress (8-2).
Best first-round matchup: Esperanza (7-3) vs. El Toro (9-1) at Trabuco Hills HS -- Fourth-seeded El Toro has a great passing attack led by Conner Manning (271 yards/game, 26 TDs, 4 int.), but Esperanza is physical and counters with a terrific ground game paced by Troy Poole (176 yards/game, 18 TDs). This is a clash of styles that makes for a great opening round.
Toughest road: Laguna Hills (7-2) -- The Hawks won seven games but finished in a three-way tie for second place and carry a two-game losing streak into the playoffs. A few weeks ago, they were challenging for one of the seeded positions. They might have improved their lot if they had beaten more than just one opponent with a winning record. Now they must not only face a seasoned Cypress team led by Vincent "Bug" Rivera in the first round, but either Buena Park (8-2) or, more likely, Foothill in the second; Foothill (6-4) lost to top-seeded Villa Park in overtime, to Brea Olinda (8-2) on a game-ending Hail Mary, and to run-oriented Tustin (7-3) on a pair of bombs.
Potential shocker: Capistrano Valley (3-7) vs. Brea Olinda (8-2) -- Capo Valley lost three Sea View League games by a combined three points, and two of those -- to El Toro and Laguna Hills -- were in overtime. The Cougars also gave Pac-5 opponent Trabuco Hills (6-4) all it could handle in a 28-21 loss. The point is that Capo Valley hasn't been able to buy a break; if its luck changes, it could beat Brea before facing La Habra.
Darkhorse: Tustin (7-3), led by running back Tyler Siudzinski (129 yards/game, 13 TDs) was in a three-way tie for first place in the Empire League but then lost out on the coin flip and was relegated to the third-place entry. The Tillers were banged up in midseason which hurt them, but they beat fourth-seeded Cypress, 42-21, two weeks ago. Also, they gave Upland (10-0), the third-seeded team in the Inland Division, a pretty good tussle in a nonleague game: the Tillers led, 20-17, late in the third quarter. Tustin is in the same quarter bracket as Villa Park, and that's not the opponent that the top-seeded team was looking for in the second round. And guess who beat Villa Park in last year's semis? Tustin.
Final analysis: There are plenty of teams that could challenge for the title, though most seem to agree that Villa Park and La Habra are the class of the division, and everyone else is lumped together with minimal separation.
Championship prediction: La Habra won't see any team that's better than the three that it lost to in successive weeks -- Servite (24-16), Orange Lutheran (30-24, OT) and St. John Bosco (41-6). Villa Park isn't nearly so seasoned; it didn't play a nonleague opponent with a winning record, and it played only one game closer than 28 points (the overtime win over Foothill). The Spartans outscored their last three Century League opponents, 156-7, but the playoffs are played at a different level. A healthy Tustin playing at home in the second round could very well spoil Villa Park's season. Meanwhile, La Habra has played all season with its backup quarterback, Sean Sparling, and may get its starter Cole Wolterman (broken leg) by the time the finals roll around. They have the best defensive player in the division in Aaron Porter, and they have a multi-dimensional offense that includes Brett Bartolone. The drive for five will thrive: La Habra 35, Tustin 21.