On a Santa Maria-style Thanksgiving morning, with the sun shining and a slight breeze, there was one area football team busy getting to work on the practice field. 

Santa Maria High's historic run to the CIF Southern Section semifinals continues Friday night as the Saints travel to South El Monte to face the fourth-seeded Eagles, a team with an 11-1 record and a 2,000-yard rusher.

But Thursday, the Saints spent Thanksgiving morning on the grass practice field in the middle of the Santa Maria High campus, going from 8 a.m. to just past 10.

On Friday, the Saints will attempt to make their first divisional final in football since 1988, when they lost to San Marino 19-11 in the Division VII title game.

On paper it appears the Saints, who are 8-4 and riding a six-game win streak, are the underdogs. But that was also the case last week, when Santa Maria rallied to blow out top-seeded Schurr of Montebello, 42-21 at home.

The No. 8 seed Saints have scored 98 points in their two playoff games, starting with the 56-28 home win over ninth-seeded Carpinteria in the first round. 

Friday's game at South El Monte will be the Saints' first road playoff game since they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs at Thousand Oaks in 2001.

In fact, the game against Carpinteria was Santa Maria's first playoff appearance since that game 16 years ago. Before that, the lone playoff appearance for Santa Maria was in 1994, when a 1-9 Saint team stunned top-ranked Culver City and advanced to the quarterfinals. 

Santa Maria has been runner-up a number of times, including 1988, 1984, 1972 and 1927, according to the CIF record books, which recount title-holders dating back to 1917.

On Thursday, though, Santa Maria players and coaches ran through a crisp offense with helmets and no shoulder pads. Coaches and players talked about the meals that awaited them for once they returned home, with talk of fried, baked or even barbecued turkey for Thanksgiving. 

Santa Maria quarterback Blake Truhitte wasn't focused on food, but rather spending time with family and making sure he and the high-flying Santa Maria offense is prepared to take on South El Monte, a team that has only allowed 138 points in its 12 games.

Truhitte admitted it was a little difficult waking up for the early-morning practice.

"It's not really too different, but honestly I'm tired," Truhitte said. "I stayed up a little later than I should have. But other than that it doesn't feel too different to me. Hopefully we'll be out of here by 10 and I'll be able to go spend time with my family."

Truhitte was unstoppable against Schurr last week, and has been throughout the season. He threw two touchdown passes and rushed for 232 yards on 24 carries with three touchdowns against the Spartans.

"We're just going to do what's been working for us, we've been able to play good offensively," Truhitte said. "Defensively, we're going to be flying around. We know they like to run the ball, so we're going to have a strong run defense this Friday."

Sal Tovar is the Eagles' leading rusher. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior has 2,090 rushing yards on 195 carries, averaging 10.7 yards per rush. He has 29 rushing touchdowns. Tovar carried the ball 23 times for 298 yards and four touchdowns in the first-round win over El Dorado.

In South El Monte's 42-35 quarterfinal win over Rancho Christian, Tovar was less effective and well below his season rushing average. He had 29 carries for 154 yards and a score. South El Monte has 3,390 rushing yards as a team on the year with 45 touchdowns on the ground. 

The Eagles aren't exactly one-dimensional. Senior quarterback Daniel Olmos has thrown for 987 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Truhitte's numbers are breathtaking. The 5-foot-7, 160-pound senior has thrown 24 touchdown passes and 1,949 yards with 12 interceptions. He's completed 110 of 200 pass attempts.

Truhitte is also the Saints' most explosive ball-carrier. He has carried the ball 186 times for 1,690 yards and 24 more touchdowns. He's rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 of the Saints' 12 games this year. He accounted for seven touchdowns in the first-round win over Carpinteria, even returning a kick 99 yards for a score.

But the Saints don't only rely on Truhitte.

Senior runner Bobby Ruiz has stepped up as a reliable ball-carrier. Making Santa Maria's run even more impressive is that they're doing it without perhaps their best two-way player in Isiah Garcia, who has missed about the entire season with a torn ACL.

Ruiz has filled Garcia's shoes admirably in the backfield. Ruiz has 142 carries for 901 yards and eight touchdowns. Ruiz is also a reliable defender, with 35 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions on the season.

John Ramos had a productive game against Schurr and has had a big bounce-back season for the Saints after missing last year with a knee injury. Ramos had a 59-yard touchdown catch and finished with two grabs for 99 yards last week. He also had a 21-yard touchdown run filling in at quarterback late in the game.

Ramos leads Santa Maria with 36 catches for 855 yards and eight touchdowns. 

But the biggest match-up Friday night will likely be Santa Maria's rush defense against Tovar and the Eagles. Middle linebacker Frank Lopez leads Santa Maria with 105 total tackles (72 solo). Ramos is second on the team with 70 total tackles (48 solo).

The Saints have proven they can pressure the quarterback. Gerardo Zul and Gabriel Bravo have combined for 29 sacks. Zul has 16 and Bravo adds 13. 

As a team, Santa Maria has 56 sacks on the season and 62 tackles-for-loss.

Though the Saints blew up the top half of the bracket with the win over top-seeded Schurr, the bottom half is still intact, with third-seeded Big Bear hosting second-seeded Santa Ana in the other semifinal. If Big Bear wins that match-up, Santa Maria would be the home team in the championship game, which could possibly be held at Santa Maria High. Santa Ana won a coin flip and would host Santa Maria if they both win their semifinals.

Both Big Bear and Santa Ana are 11-1 on the season heading into their game.

Ruiz, the senior linebacker-running back, was also a member of Santa Maria's baseball team that won a CIF title last spring. 

"It's exciting," Ruiz said of being so close to another possible championship. "All my life on youth teams I've only been on one championship team. Being on average or mediocre teams my whole life and bringing myself to a bigger, championship-level team, it feels great. All this is happening in such little time."

Ruiz said the team's preparation throughout the week has been good and the team is actually looking forward to playing on the road.

"We've been hyped all week. It's crazy thinking about this game. Everybody is pretty pumped up to go and play on the road at South El Monte," Ruiz said. "It's part of football, you have to play on the road sometimes. You can't play at home forever. I heard they're undefeated at home so I'm hoping to give them their first loss and send them home.

"That's be a pretty good feeling for us."

Joe Bailey is the sports editor at Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Contact him with tips and story ideas at jbailey@leecentralcoastnews.com or (805) 739-2239. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jbaileysmsports


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