Prep football marquee matchup: Serrano at Carter, semifinals

These teams are similar beyond their undefeated records, league championships and presence in the CIF-SS Eastern Division semifinals. Third-seeded Serrano (12-0) and second-seeded Carter (12-0) are both run-first, defensive minded programs who reached the semifinals last season. The good news is, one of them will go further than it did last year.

Semi-familiar: To say Serrano is a mainstay in the semifinals may be an understatement. The Diamondbacks have gone at least this far each of the last five seasons, but have only been to the finals once during that stretch, losing the 2009 final by 10 points to Palm Springs.

The last time Serrano was undefeated this late in the season was 2004, a year that ended with a perfect 14-0 record and the program’s only CIF championship.

Each season, capable teams seem to get in the Diamondbacks’ way. Despite the departure of several powerful programs from the Eastern Division prior to this season, Carter is one of the new arrivals that made sure the playoff field remained strong.

“It’s been a great run, but sometimes you feel marked,” Serrano coach Ray Maholchic said. “Now some teams are out, the Kaisers, the Heritages and the Elsinores and they’re the top teams in (the Central) Division. But still, you look at our division and three of the four teams left are undefeated.”

Here to stay: Carter is not only new to the Eastern Division as of this season, but relatively new to the late November playoff scene. The Lions caught fire last year in coach Alex Pierce’s fourth season, surging to a 9-0 start and the first league championship in school history. Carter not only reached the CIF-SS Central Division semifinals, it was just four points from an appearance in the finals.

Apparently it wasn’t a fluke.

Despite graduating the Inland Valley Player of the Year and losing the coordinator of a defense that allowed 10.7 points per game in 2011, Carter is arguably having a better season in 2012. Carter’s defense is allowing less than nine points per game and the offense is relying on a plethora of options as opposed to 1,900-yard rusher Gaylon Maxie.

Running in the same direction: Pierce thinks Carter mirrors Serrano in many ways.

“They try to do a lot of the same things we try to do,” Pierce said of Serrano. “They’re solid on defense. They set up the play action with their running game. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a low-scoring game, but if it’s high scoring I wouldn’t be surprised either, especially if there are some turnovers.”

But while Carter’s running game is fueled by three players with more than 500 rushing yards, Serrano is led by senior Michael Hawkins, who is just nine yards shy of 1,400 for the season.

The Diamondbacks are even more dangerous with the continued development of senior quarterback Daniel Epperson, who has 1,971 yards, 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Nevertheless, Maholchic expects points to be hard to come by for either team.

“I can’t see a lot of points being scored in this game,” he said. “They do have a size advantage on us that could be difficult to deal with. Unless our guys have a big Thanksgiving, we’re going to be smaller than them.”