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Spring Valley tackles red-hot Faith Lutheran

Spring Valley’s senior football players didn’t have much to get excited about during their first three seasons in the program.

This fall has been a different story.

The Grizzlies are 5-3 and in a four-way tie for first place in the Division I-A Sunset League as they host defending state champion Faith Lutheran in the regular-season finale at 7 p.m. Friday.

“It’s great,” senior running back/safety Michael Bianco said. “The past few seasons we’ve been losing and whatnot, so this season’s a good change for us.”

The Sunset League playoff picture is still jumbled with four teams at 4-2 and two more at 3-3 with one game to play. But the one clear thing is that Spring Valley will make the playoffs in its first season at the Division I-A level. Just where the Grizzlies finish in the league is still up for grabs. They can finish in any of the top four spots.

Spring Valley won three games in each of the last three seasons. A win tonight would guarantee the school’s first winning record since 2010.

“You want an opportunity to be in the playoffs,” coach Marcus Teal said. “We’ve got our opportunity. We’ve made the playoffs, now we hold our destiny in our hand and see where we fall.”

But before the playoffs, the Grizzlies must face red-hot Faith Lutheran. The Crusaders (5-3, 4-2) started the season poorly, but have won four straight. And unlike Spring Valley, Faith Lutheran could still miss the postseason if it loses.

The Crusaders have been strong offensively, scoring at least 31 points in each of the last five games. But they face a stingy Spring Valley defense that has allowed an average of 9.6 points.

“We really feel like we have one of the best defenses in I-A,” Teal said. “This week going against a tough Faith team for what it’s all worth is exciting for us. Coach (Vernon) Fox, his team is on a hot streak. We have to be prepared for them, because they’re going to give us their best shot. We’ve got to stay focused to give them all they can handle and prove that we are an elite team in the division.”

Faith Lutheran has been extremely balanced, gaining 1,297 yards rushing and 1,191 passing. But it’s the passing game, led by quarterback Greg Benson (1,039 yards, 14 TDs) and receiver Mark Rubalcaba (46 catches, 730 yards, 10 TDs), that Bianco thinks will be the key.

“They have some good wide receivers and a good quarterback,” said Bianco, who leads the Grizzlies in tackles and has six interceptions. “I think if we stop their throwing game, then we have a real good shot at beating them.”

Teal said senior leaders like Bianco and quarterback Christian Tasi have been key to Spring Valley’s turnaround this season. Tasi has rushed for a team-high 654 yards and seven TDs and averages 8 yards per carry. Bianco is second in rushing at 506 yards with five TDs.

“We’re very excited about those guys, and we’re going to miss them when they’re gone,” Teal said. “We’ve got 19 guys that we’re going to be sending away, so we want to send them off on a good note.”

And that could include more than just a win on Senior Night. The Grizzlies also will be seeking the school’s first playoff victory. Though Spring Valley ended a two-year postseason drought last season, it lost 56-0 to eventual Division I state champion Bishop Gorman in the first round of the playoffs.

“I still haven’t taken it in yet,” Tasi said of clinching a playoff spot. “I’ve been to the playoffs last year, but not in the I-A division. Going against Gorman our first round, it’s not really a good feeling. I’m feeling good about this year.”

And the players aren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.

“Things are a lot more interesting than in the past,” Teal said. “I can’t say that I’m disliking it at all. I’m having a good time.”

Contact reporter Damon Seiters at dseiters@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4587. Follow him on Twitter: @DamonSeiters.

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