CULVER CITY — Any time Samohi and Culver City meet there’s friction, but this year’s matchup has even more than just bragging rights on the line.
Santa Monica High School’s football team is sitting at 7-1 overall and even more importantly 3-0 in Ocean League play, putting the Vikings on track to potentially win its first league crown since the CIF-Southern Section Championship year of 2001.
Culver City enters the game at 2-1 in league and tied with Inglewood for second place. A win would keep them in the hunt, but it’s Samohi that controls its own destiny.
“They always pose concerns,” Head Coach Travis Clark said of the Centaurs. “It’s a big week for us, no doubt about it.”
Samohi set this crucial matchup in motion by rolling over league opponents en route to the 3-0 start. Wins over Beverly Hills, Morningside and Inglewood have put them in the position they now find themselves in, but Clark is wary of thinking of anything beyond Friday’s game at Culver City.
“I don’t feel it yet,” he said of the pressure. “I still feel like we’re in some water, we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Clark said his toughest job in the run-up to this game has been keeping the kids motivated. To guard against complacency, he’s drilled them hard during this week’s practices hoping to light a fire in his players that will carry them through the pivotal road game.
“I want them to finish,” he said. “If they don’t finish this off, they’ll have regrets later in life. I don’t want that for them.”
Clark’s mantra has been embraced by perhaps his most important player — quarterback Christian Salem.
Salem has noticed an up-tick in excitement as the team has prepared for Culver City this week, something that could propel them to the cusp of a league title.
“This is our season right here,” Salem said. “We haven’t been Ocean League champs in a very long time. We’re definitely not going to sleep on this one.”
Bolstering Samohi’s chances is the return of starting running back Kori Garcia, who suffered a mild concussion two weeks ago at Beverly Hills. Clark kept the versatile player on the bench during last week’s victory over Morningside, but his return bodes well for both the offense and defense.
Aside from his duties carrying the ball, Garcia is a key part of the defensive back field. Sophomore Will Taylor was inserted into the line up on both sides of the ball last week, but Garcia’s return should limit his role somewhat.
Also on the mend is fellow running back London Lewis. He played last week, but was used sparingly once the Vikings took an early lead, giving way to Taylor and Miguel Cardiel. Both were able to contribute to the running game, giving Clark hope that they add depth and experience to the position.
Despite the good news surrounding the running backs, there are a couple of players who will most likely miss the game. USC-commit Chad Wheeler, a defensive and offensive lineman. will again sit after injuring his shoulder earlier this season and wide receiver Michael Jordan may join him after injuring his ankle last week.
Jordan said that he may be cleared to play, while Clark remains skeptical that the tall receiver will be able to suit up. He said it would be a game-time decision.
Regardless of who starts on Friday, Culver City head coach Jahmal Wright is expecting Samohi to be as good as advertised.
“Coach Clark is doing a great job,” Wright said. “I’m proud of how Samo is [representing] the Ocean League. Hopefully we can get a little more respect.”
CIF-Southern Section Western Division voters have taken note of both Samohi and Culver City. Samohi is currently ranked No. 7 in the poll, its highest ranking all season, while Culver City is a slot behind them at No. 8.
Culver City had been the only Ocean League team in the poll all season, until it was joined by Samohi four weeks ago. Since then, the two have swapped places mostly due to a Culver City loss to Inglewood, the same Inglewood team that Samohi handled somewhat easily earlier this season.
Even with all the subplots, Clark is keeping it in perspective.
“I’m just trying to focus on the boys,” Clark said of his team. “We’re busy staying in the moment.”