As he prepared for the 2015 season this past summer, St. Monica football coach Drew Shaw was perhaps more excited than usual.

The program had won just three games two years earlier, and the team he inherited as a first-year coach last year mustered just five victories. But he could sense there was more progress on the horizon.

“I just felt really good about it,” he said. “I felt we had the chance to do something special.”

That chance has arrived.

After a phenomenal regular season during which the Mariners went undefeated in conference play, they are now in the hunt for postseason success. The journey begins with a game against Temecula-Rancho Christian at 7 p.m. Friday at Santa Monica College in the first round of the CIF Southern Section’s East Valley Division playoffs.

Boasting a combination of offensive firepower and defensive grit, St. Monica (9-1) has already won more games this season than in the previous two years combined. The squad has outscored its last nine opponents by a combined margin of 373-114, eclipsing the 45-point benchmark five times.

It didn’t start out as a dream season for the Mariners, who were crushed by Pasadena-Maranatha in their opener before scraping past Palm Desert-Xavier Prep in a 12-10 victory a week later.

But then they soundly defeated Anaheim-Fairmont Prep on Sept. 18, and it seems they’ve never looked back.

“I thought we had a chance to be really special because I knew who we had coming back,” Shaw said. “I just knew it would take a little time to get the kids to believe and to get the kids to understand what I wanted them to do.”

St. Monica will first have to get past Rancho Christian (7-3), the second-place team from the South Valley League. The Eagles have won their last four games by a combined margin of 201-31.

Shaw is convinced the Mariners have the skill and collective psyche to reach the section finals. If his team wins Friday, it will face either Riverside-Sherman Indian or Huntington Beach-Brethren Christian in the second round.

“I think we have a realistic shot at going to the championship game,” he said. “I think we have the talent, we have the coaching staff, we have the experience and we have the mental toughness. We have everything we need, but if you don’t play well, you can get upset or beat by a good team.”

St. Monica enters the playoffs a week after crushing North Hollywood-Campbell Hall 50-12 in its regular-season finale.

Senior quarterback Cameron Nuslein threw for 177 yards and three touchdowns, two to senior Caleb Raymond and one to junior Cole McPherson. Junior running back Justin Thomas took nine carries for 101 yards and two scores, while junior Carlos Fuller and freshman Nate Davis each added one rushing touchdown.

An interception by McPherson, his fourth of the season, highlighted a defensive effort by the Mariners that also included five sacks, four caused fumbles and a blocked field goal.

Shaw hopes this year’s standout plays are remembered as part of something much more enduring.

“We talk about winning a championship every day,” he said. “We’ve had a good season, but the goal is to win a championship. That’s what we’re working towards, and that’s a realistic goal.”

jeff@www.smdp.com