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Upland Primed For A Deep Run

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Upland, CA. - Six weeks ago, the Upland Highlanders (Upland, CA) were in the midst of a bye week after finishing their non-conference schedule undefeated for the second straight season. Head coach Tim Salter and his staff was doing their best to keep their players focused on what lie ahead.  The Baseline League opener was a week away and the opponent was none other than Rancho Cucamonga, a team many believed would challenge the Highlanders for the league crown.

Upland didn’t flinch against Rancho, or any other league team for that matter, en route to an undefeated season and a number three seed in the playoffs. Heading into this Fridays game versus Great Oak (Temecula, CA) in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Inland Division playoffs, Upland appears to be peaking at the right time.

“I don’t think our preseason schedule was nearly as tough (as last year)” said Salter.  “I was really impressed with our ability to step it up a few notches. It surprised me a little”.

No one should be surprised that the Highlanders are again in good position to make a deep run in the post season. Standing between them and the schools fifth CIF Championship, are early round games where they’ll be favored before the fun begins in earnest.

Centennial (Corona, CA), the number two seed,  and Vista Murrieta (Murrieta, CA), the number one seed, and ranked number two in the state by Cal Hi Sports, loom in potential semi-final and finals matchups.

Salter, however, believes his team is prepared for those matchups if his team gets that far.

“I think we have enough guys back that played Loyola, Vista Murrieta, Norco last year that they’re able to step up,” said Salter. “But now it’s one-and-done, so it doesn’t matter who you play. If you lose you’re out.”

After losing four players to graduation that signed with Division I schools, Upland is again loaded with talent this year.

Joe Mathis, a Rivals.com four star recruit and an Army All-American, leads a defense which is limiting teams to 18 point per game, many of which have come with the outcome of the game already decided.

Mathis, however, is not doing it alone.

James Johnson, an Arizona State commit, is a three year starting safety that Salter believes is one of the best he’s had in his near two decades at the school.

“He’s a big kid with a lot of range that can cover a lot of ground” said Salter. “He can play either side of the ball and has the skill to play safety, wide receiver, and has the frame to put on some weight to drop down and play outside linebacker.”

Junior transfer Jeff Farrar battled some injuries early but has since taken over one cornerback position racking up five interceptions in the last two games.

“Jeff has really established himself nicely in that spot for us,” said Salter. “His ability to lock down that spot has allowed us to move Delvin Batiste down to outside linebacker which has added a lot of speed to our defense.”

Offensively, the Highlanders are averaging 44 point per game and are led by the steady hand of quarterback Nate Romine, who is likely to be the offensive player of the year in a league loaded with offensive talent. Salter, in his 19th year at the school, believes Romine is the best all-around quarterback he’s coached.

“I’ve had guys throw for more yardage,” said the veteran coach. “But I’ve never had a guy throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 like Nate has this year. He’s truly something special.”

Romine, who is listed at 6’0”, is getting some recruiting attention but not the amount of some of his teammates. That doesn’t seem to bother the senior gunslinger who has thrown for 10 touchdowns in the last two games.

“His play has been outstanding,” said Salter clearly gushing over his quarterback. “There’s not many kids in the Southern Section who can do what he does. He moves the chains constantly for us.”

Great Oak comes into the game averaging 29 points per game on offense and won its last two games in league to qualify for the post season. The defense is allowing 27 points per game.

The Wolfpacks 5-5 overall record is not going to open any eyes, especially when you consider the quality of non-conference opponent. They also play in a league where Vista Murrieta is clearly at the top dog.

Nevertheless, this team has Salters' attention.

“We aren’t good enough to overlook anyone,” said Salter. “If we go into this game looking ahead to next week we’re going to have a rude awakening.”

Upland figures to advance past Great Oak with relative ease, and if they do, they’ll await the winner of the Chino Hills - Redlands game. If the Highlanders are able to win that game and advance to the semi-finals they would likely square of with Centennial, the number two seed in the tournament.

But before they get that far they understand what awaits them Friday.

“You have to remember, these are high school kids that read all the stuff on the internet,” said Salter foreshadowing the rest of the statement. “It’s our jobs as coaches to make sure they understand that they must take it one play at a time.”

One play at a time is something the four-time CIF winning coach has done plenty of over his near two decades at the helm.

-Les Lukach


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