Baseline League’s Upland and Etiwanda reach CIF-SS football finals with same hunger

There are two Baseline League football teams, Upland and Etiwanda, that came up short in their bids to win the league title four weeks ago, but they are still playing as the CIF Southern Section holds its championship games this weekend.

Seventh-seeded Upland (9-4) hosts No. 4 Yorba Linda (13-0) for the Division 3 title Friday at 7:30 p.m., and No. 2 Etiwanda (8-5) hosts No. 9 St. Francis (10-3) for the Division 5 title Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

It is the first time the Baseline League has had two teams reach football championship games in the same year since Upland played Los Osos for the Central Division title in 2009.

Upland and Etiwanda finished behind Rancho Cucamonga in league, in a three-way tie for second with Damien, which did not qualify for the playoffs.

That is not the only thing the two programs have in common. Both teams are breaking a finals drought in one way or another.

Upland won a section title as recently as 2018, in Tim Salter’s last year as head coach, but this is the Highlanders’ first trip to the finals with Darryl Thomas at the helm. Thomas was previously head coach at Covina for 15 years and made it to the CIF-SS semifinals five times, but never made the finals.

Thomas served as an assistant for Salter on the 2018 team, but this is his first trip to the finals as a head coach.

Upland football coach Darryl Thomas against West Ranch in the CIF Southern Section Division 3 quarterfinal game November 11, 2022.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

“One of their goals was to get back to the championship game,” Thomas said of the team’s players. “I was in the semis five times and couldn’t get over the hump. This team got me over that.”

Etiwanda’s Nick Baiz is in the finals for the first time as a head coach with his current program. Baiz has been to the finals previously as the head coach at Rancho Cucamonga, which beat Upland for the Central Division title in 2008, but this finals appearance snaps a long drought for the Eagles. This is their first trip to the finals since 1990, when coach Larry Tisdale and the Eagles won the Division V crown.

“Best satisfaction for me is that five of my (assistant) coaches, who coached with me at Rancho, wanted to build something here,” Baiz said. “And there are five or six (coaches) who played for me at Rancho. They’re loyal and we’ve built it at Etiwanda, too.”

Etiwanda didn’t begin the season thinking about a CIF-SS title. Last season they started out 12-0 before falling to Serra in overtime of the Division 3 semifinals. There were 18 starters from that team who graduated last spring.

“Last year was different. We were consistently good,” said Etiwanda senior left tackle Jacob Reinhold, one of four returning starters. “We thought we were going all the way. We were confident and we didn’t have a super humbling experience. Those first losses this season humbled us into getting better and going to work. That’s what we needed.”

When Etiwanda started this season 0-2, with losses to  Aquinas and Ayala, Baiz preached process and improvement over results.

Etiwanda quarterback Dermaricus Davis receives the football against Damien in the first half of a prep football game at Damien High School in La Verne on Friday, October 28, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

One of the improvements as the season went on was with junior quarterback Dermaricus Davis, who had little playing experience before this year. Twice in the last four weeks Davis completed more than 70 percent of his passes and for the season he has thrown for 2,742 yards and 16 touchdowns.

While junior running back Jaiden Moss (16 rushing touchdowns) and returning starting wide receiver junior Jaden Landrum (75 receptions, 967 yards) have emerged as the go-to players, senior Zivan Ardines is a player who can line up in the backfield or as a receiver.

“Guys have stepped up, especially our defensive backfield,” Baiz said. “We only had one DB (returning) who had experience and he only started one or two games. The DBs have been getting better. We had no returning starters in our D-line.”

Baiz believes the younger players benefited from the experience of playing in a packed stadium against rival Rancho Cucamonga in Week 7. Etiwanda led at the half before losing 21-6, but it was a benefit.

“When you play good teams, you get that experience, a packed crowd,” he said. “We knew we could play with these guys even though we didn’t get that win.”

The Eagles feel as though the playoffs began for them in Week 10. They defeated Damien 30-27 to grab a share of second place in league and that helped them earn a spot in the playoffs.

“Damien was our first playoff game,” Reinhold said. “We knew we were not going to be able to play in the playoffs if we don’t beat this team.”

Upland has utilized two slogans during its run to the finals: PTR (Pound The Rock), which is one that was already in place, and one borrowed from the Upland girls basketball team #UBeforeMe, with the U standing for Upland.

“We have receivers excited about blocking downfield. Guys are not worried about who’s getting the ball,” Thomas said. “They’ve bought into the team. In our society, there’s a lot of self-promotion and it’s hard for team sports. I’m just excited for the kids. This (playing in the finals) is the reward.”

Upland senior linebacker Vinny Macaluso is excited to play in the finals for several reasons.

“It means the world, because I grew up in Upland,” Macaluso said. “I grew up going to the Upland games, and I was watching in 2018. Bringing it back is really special.

“We came into this year, we knew this is his (Thomas’) first senior class at Upland. We wanted it to be special for him.”

Senior running back Rickey Allen, who leads the team with 1,314 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, thinks not winning the league title actually helped for the playoff run.

“I feel if we won a league championship, some players would have been satisfied,” Allen said. “I think it started a week prior to the (playoff opener against Tesoro). You could sense a different energy before the game.”

Thomas gives some of the credit to three additions to the coaching staff: Tyler Perri, Adrian Pedroza and Dean Mariani.

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He said he wasn’t surprised that it took some time for the team to gel.

“I knew senior-laden at linebacker, young at defensive back,” Thomas said. “We were starting three sophomores on the offensive line, then everything started to gel.”

The quarterback position was also a question in the early weeks, as junior Noah Sandoval shared the job with Sean York, but it has become Sandoval’s job. He has thrown for 15 touchdowns, including one in each playoff game.