Section football playoffs: A look at Granite Bay at Modesto-Downey

Grizzlies' defense faces another tough test in Downey QB Zwahlen, a Hawaii commit
By: Bill Poindexter, Roseville Press Tribune Sports Editor
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About Downey: The fourth-seeded Knights (10-1) have a quarterback who has given a verbal commitment to the University of Hawaii, meaning he can pass. Senior Aaron Zwahlen — a familiar last name over the past few decades in Modesto’s sports circle — has completed 216 of 330 passes (65.5 percent) for 3,488 yards and 46 touchdowns. He’s thrown 10 interceptions and has a QB rating of 128.

Zwahlen isn’t picky about his targets, either; 15 teammates have been on the receiving end of his throws. The percentages, though, say you can count on five players being somewhere near Point B when Zwahlen slings from Point A: senior Richard Lopez (50 catches for 1,075 yards and 17 touchdowns), junior Tristan Best (42 for 681, 11 TDs), senior Juan Vaa-Ayala (42 for 493, four TDs, plus 957 yards rushing and nine TDs), senior Blake Lopes (39 for 576, five TDs) and junior Michael Falepouono (27 for 500, seven TDs).

The Knights present another tough challenge for Granite Bay’s defense, which has found its groove. The fifth-seeded Grizzlies (8-3) have absolutely punished opposing running games, as six of their last seven foes failed to reach 100 yards. Now their pass defense has joined the party. After limiting Nevada Union golden arm Kyle Cota to 11 completions in its regular-season finale, Granite Bay recorded three sacks and three interceptions last Friday and celebrated its first shutout this season with a 52-0 pasting of Napa in the first round.

Aaron Knapp’s pick led to a short Colin Brown field goal for a 17-0 lead after one quarter, Spencer Castonguay’s interception in a crowd slammed the door on a Napa drive to the Granite Bay 9-yard line in the fourth quarter, and a leaping pick by sophomore Cameron Smith led to Michael Geraghty’s short touchdown run and started a running clock early in the fourth quarter.

Senior Beau Hershberger (57 tackles, three sacks, two fumble recoveries) is the now on this Grizzlies unit, and Smith is the future. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and already boasting a thick set of whiskers, this kid is special. The inside linebacker had 130 tackles — 13 per game — in the regular season, far and away the top total on the team. That included 3½ sacks.

Head coach Ernie Cooper noted that while the Grizzlies’ first two games against Southern California stalwarts Westlake and Oaks Christian opened the sophomore’s young eyes, “Ten games later, that guy’s playing,” Cooper said. “He’s starting to come on, and we’re going to need him.”