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Independence's unlikely road has led team to brink of a state football title

The low point of the Independence football team’s season came in Week 7, following a 42-28 loss to Bakersfield Christian.

The loss in the South Yosemite League opener dropped the Falcons to 0-6, and fourth-year head coach Tyler Schilhabel felt the effects.

“To be honest, I had a very hard time personally, feeling that maybe I’m inadequate as a coach,” Schilhabel said of the Oct. 1 loss. “To have the talent that we have and to be 0-6 …”

Three hundred miles to the north in Novato, San Marin was on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Mustangs had just finished off a 48-20 victory over San Anselmo-Archie Williams to improve to 5-0, part of what turned into seven straight victories to open the season.

While the Mustangs' fortunes haven't changed much, Independence did a complete 180, and hasn’t lost since, winning nine straight games, setting in motion a collision course for the two schools.

On Saturday, the two teams will be on opposite sides of the field for what seemed to be a very unlikely matchup all those weeks ago, playing for the CIF State Division 5-AA championship. Kickoff for the game at San Marin is scheduled for 6 p.m.

“So maybe there’s been a little bit of personal vindication for me to see these boys turn it around, and it’s all due to the effort and the work that they’ve put forward,” Schilhabel said. “That has very little to do with me, but winning solves a lot of problems. A lot of those feelings I had earlier definitely aren’t there now. But that’s all due to the boys and their ability to fight back through adversity and turn this thing around.”

The Falcons won their final four games in SYL play, and then won three more in the Division IV playoff as the No. 6 seed, capped by a 28-21 victory over Mendota for the school’s first Central Section title.

The team followed that up with a 19-14 win at Venice in the Southern California Division 5-AA Regional Bowl Game last week, and they enter this week with plenty of confidence.

“There’s definitely a lot more hype and electricity on campus and among family members, but these guys have handled it well, they’ve practiced well all week and they’ve taken that energy and we’ve still managed to have really good practices,” said Schilhabel, whose team departed Independence High at 7:45 a.m. Friday for the more than 4-hour bus ride. “But obviously playing in the state championship has added excitement.”

San Marin (13-1), which suffered its only loss of the season to Marin Catholic in Week 9, 21-14, has won six straight games. The Mustangs won the North Coast Section Division 5 title and then defeated Sutter 35-7 in the NoRCal Regional Division 5-AA Bowl Game last week.

The Mustangs rely heavily on senior running back Justin Guin. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder has rushed for 2,240 yards and 34 touchdowns. He’s averaging 160 yards per game and has eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in 13 of his team’s 14 games this season.

“It’s kind of similar to what most teams plan to try to stop us, we have to try to contain their running back,” said Schilhabel of this week’s game plan. “He’s kind of their spark plug. So if we contain him or possibly shut him down that increased our chances dramatically. But they have a good quarterback and receivers that don’t drop very many balls with good route-running ability. But the first thing we have to stop is the run and that will improve our chances.”

San Marin is equally comfortable throwing the ball. Junior quarterback Joey Cook has thrown for 2,050 yards, with 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He has a pair of talented receivers in Andy Garcia and Frankie Quinci, who have combined for 61 catches for 1,316 yards and 20 scores.

Despite the impressive statistics, Schilhabel says he doesn’t plan to change his pregame approach.

Independence will rely heavily on an opportunistic, bend-but-don’t break defense and a talented trio of offensive weapons, led by seniors Ladon Denmark and Evan Peaker and junior Anthony Rico.

Denmark, the team’s dynamic quarterback, rushed for three touchdowns in last week’s bowl victory, and has combined to pass and run for more than 2,000 yards and 26 TDs.

"For me, it is a redemption story," said Denmark, whose mother, Renesha, died of cancer two years ago and his father, Ladon, was killed in a shooting in the summer of 2020. "Doing it for my mom and dad … As for the team, we are ready to go make history for our school."

Peaker had rushed for 1,908 yards and 15 touchdowns, and also took a kickoff return 75 yards for a score in the section title game. He is equally talented on the defensive side of the ball where at linebacker he has 55 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.

Rico, whose time on the field has been limited by a leg injury, has 621 yards rushing for 12 touchdowns, and also has four TD catches. He helped set up a touchdown with a 46-yard run on a third-and-six play last week, moving the ball to the Venice 38, helping the Falcons move ahead 19-7.

"These players have personified determination, perseverance and resilience, and earned their way to the state championship game," said Derek LaRosa, Independence's athletic director. "This game is a tremendous opportunity for the school to show the state what we are capable of and for our football program to stake its claim among the best in the state, and make history."

All that’s left is to play the game — and a state title — something Schilhabel says will likely hit home when he enters the field Saturday night.

“I’m just hoping we come out there and have the same energy that we’ve shown all week from the get-go, from the pregame stretch,” he said. “Just high energy, ready to go. We don’t care who lines up across from us, as long as we go out there and play our game, try to be more physical, try to run the ball and play great team defense.”