For most of the year, Bakersfield Christian coach Darren Carr says he's been trying to build up the confidence of a reworked secondary that graduated a great deal of talent from a season ago.
His message seemed to get through loud and clear Friday night.
The Eagle defense made life miserable for San Luis Obispo star quarterback Emilio Corona, who threw five of the Tigers' six interceptions as the Eagles coasted to the Division III Central Section Playoff championship game with a 35-14 semifinal win.
The pick party started midway through the first quarter, with the Eagles intercepting Corona, who threw just four picks while accounting for 50 total touchdowns this season, on consecutive plays.
Chris Gutierrez recorded the first of his three interceptions, perfectly jumping a route to kill a Tiger red zone drive in the first quarter.
“All week, coach has been telling us DBs that we got to step it up," said Gutierrez, who has four interceptions in two playoff games. "I took that to heart...and made some plays and just did what coaches told me to do.”
After forcing a punt, the Eagles immediately got the ball back, as Gabe Zuniga picked off a tipped pass.
Dominic Gamboni, who threw a 1-yard touchdown to Donovan Foster on 4th-and-goal on the night's opening drive, doubled the BCHS lead when he hit a wide open Ronnie Simril for a 50-yard touchdown on a busted coverage.
Gamboni finished 12-of-16 for 214 yards and added touchdown passes of 41 yards to Gutierrez and 28 yards to Ben Yurosek in the second half.
The scoring proved plenty for the defense.
Jess Wattenbarger added two interceptions, including a second-quarter play where he ripped the ball away from 6-foot-7 Tiger receiver Carson Leedom.
“Coverage-wise, we’ve got a lot of new guys. A lot of our guys graduated last year," Carr said. "It was (about) getting them caught up and they had a great night, man, and it just comes down to how hard they worked.”
Wattenbarger also made his presence felt on offense.
After starting running back David Stevenson left with a first half ankle injury, Wattenbarger filled in with 70 yards and a spinning 21-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Carr seemed optimistic that Stevenson, who opened the game with a 35-yard kick return and 46 yards on his first two carries, would be available for next week's title game, where a familiar opponent awaits.
The Eagles will host Visalia-Central Valley Christian, a team they defeated 36-0 in week two, in next week's Division III championship. CVC advanced with an 18-16 win over Visalia-Golden West on Friday.
Despite the lopsided nature of the first meeting, Carr isn't preparing his team for another cake walk.
“You have no idea how it’s going to turn out," he said. "We’ve got to hit the film room hard, their coach is going to do the same thing. We’ll see what happens Friday.”
Unsurprisingly, his group will enter the matchup with a high level of confidence.
"We’re definitely going to come for Valley really hard," Wattenbarger said. "CVC’s a tough team, they’re going to play hard. It’s going to be a good game.
"But I think we’re going to come out on top."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Bakersfield Christian won 35-17.