Fears of Terra Nova’s demise were largely put to rest last week.
Not only did a four-game losing streak send concerns up and down the Peninsula about whether the Tigers were the contender of years past, but there were even rumors the program was losing its place among the Bay Area’s elite altogether.
Then, the Tigers got healthy.
Terra Nova returned to form by clinching a playoff berth with a season-ending 17-14 win over Burlingame and proceeded to upset second-seeded Aptos in a CCS Division III Quarterfinal, 24-14.
Before that injury-riddled four-game losing streak jeopardized Terra Nova’s playoff chances, the Tigers were 4-1. After forfeiting their first game due to an altercation in a scrimmage, they rattled off four consecutive wins, a streak that included a 63-point outburst at Scotts Valley and a win over Salinas — a team that would go on to claim the Monterey Bay League’s Gabilan Division, another of the section’s top leagues.
That win over Salinas, in which the Tigers used a potent aerial attack to jump out to a 21-0 lead, had many thinking Terra Nova would return to its place atop the PAL.
Then, the injuries struck. In a 31-21 loss to Aragon, the Tigers suffered four serious injuries, including three in the first quarter. The depleted offensive line allowed nine sacks. Those struggles continued the next week in a 16-7 loss at Sacred Heart Prep. Terra Nova squandered a 17-0 lead to Menlo-Atherton and was then dealt the ultimate blow, a 45-7 home loss to Half Moon Bay in the Skull Game.
However, that Skull Game was played without nearly half the offensive starters, including running back Brandon Auelua.
Auelua recovered in time for the meeting with Burlingame, along with two-way lineman Derek Franson, and the positive outcomes followed. Auelua broke 100 yards for the first time on the season, racking up 133 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 17 carries.
Still, Terra Nova would need to return to its early-season form in order to knock off Aptos.
Quarterback Nathan Gordon was his usual self, throwing for 280 yards and completing 21 of his 28 passes, but it was Auelua who put the Tigers over the edge, with 23 carries for 183 yards, including an 89-yard dash late in the third quarter for the final score of the game.
Terra Nova will try to beat yet another MBL Gabilan team this week, making the trek down to Salinas to take on third-seeded Palma at Rabobank Stadium. Palma finished third in the division behind Salinas and Aptos.
“Right now, all I care about is Palma,” said the fourth-year head coach Tim Adams. “They’re gonna be a big, big challenge.”
Terra Nova’s success at the start of the year and in the so-called “second season” is not just a testament to the Tigers’ strength, it’s a reflection of the strength of the entire PAL Bay Division. Five of the league’s six teams made the playoffs, second only to the vaunted WCAL. Four of those five teams are playing in semifinal games, and the only one that isn’t, Burlingame, lost to first-place Half Moon Bay.
“From top to bottom, you’re in a dogfight every week,” said Adams. “In the 10 years I’ve been at Terra Nova, this is the best Bay Division I’ve ever seen.”
Instead of flying above and beyond the crowd, as Terra Nova had done in previous years, the Tigers
have been joined at the top by their competitors. While it may mean there aren’t as many league championship banners being hung in Pacifica, more section championship banners may be on the way. After all, teams that play in grueling leagues often perform better come playoff time because they’ve already experienced trial by fire.
That doesn’t mean Palma will be an easy opponent. Sophomore Anthony Villegas has rushed for 1,576 yards for the third-seeded Chieftains, and, like the Aptos game, Terra Nova will have to make a lengthy trip.
“High school kids on the road is always a challenge, and it’s not a 20-minute bus ride,” said Adams.
Fortunately for Adams, challenges are nothing new for the Tigers.
As trying as it may have been, that four-game losing streak galvanized the team, and they’ve certainly proved their belonging among the section’s elite. Now that they’ve broken free from the injuries that restrained them, it’s a matter of how far they’ll go.
Prep Focus writer Ethan Kassel covers high school sports throughout the Bay Area. If you have a story tip, game to watch or player to track, email him at email@example.com.