Piedmont High, ground zero for the sensational A-11 offense, was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs Friday night, dropping a 35-13 decision at home to Fortuna High of Eureka, a four and a half-hour drive up the California coast.
This column got to see the A-11 in person just in time, then, finally following through on a summer promise to check it out by making the 800-mile trek across the Bay Bridge -- and then later the eight-mile drive home.
I didn't get to see much of the A-11.
"I think where they did most of their damage against us was on offense," said Piedmont offensive coordinator Steve Humphries, who developed the offense last year with head coach Kurt Bryan. "The best defense against us is to keep us off the field."
That's what the Eagles, a running team, did, grinding out several long scoring drives on their way to a 28-7 halftime lead, then grinding out the win in a more even second half.
Mindful that I don't watch a lot of high school football, I thought I was seeing the A-11 run up against its limitations.
The offense is named for the fact that any of the 11 players on the field could be eligible, though only six of them actually are on any given play. The defense must read the formation to figure out which six. It's designed to allow smaller teams to use speed, spacing and precision to spread out, confuse and outrun bigger, stronger players on defense.
But as you go up the competitive ladder, athleticism takes over. Spread 'em out, misdirect 'em, knock yourself out. Elite defenders will run you down. I didn't know if Fortuna was an elite team or not -- the Eagles are 6-4 after their win, so they're not -- but it was during their second possession when I said to the wife, "This is going to be a long night for Piedmont." And I only waited until the second possession because I'd never say that any earlier.
Piedmont had no answers for Fortuna's less glamorous offense, giving up chunks of yards on first down and allowing the Eagles to convert whenever they faced a third down. The Highlanders were getting blown off the line of scrimmage and their tackling was poor.
Humphries, who said the Fortuna coaches said at a postgame party that the Eagles had played a perfect game, their best of the year, disagreed with my assessment that elite defenses will neutralize the A-11.
"I think that gives the monopoly of speed to the defense," he said, pointing out that an offense can match a defense's speed, especially on the edges. "I don't think fast defenses could give the A-11 trouble. It'd spread 'em out just the same."
But while the A-11 can level the playing field on offense, it's a fact of life that even the greatest offensive teams have to play defense. There doesn't appear to be an A-11 equivalent on the horizon to even things up for smaller defenses. "It's an eternal problem, I think," Humphries said.
The A-11 can clearly give an outgunned team a chance to compete. Humphries pointed out that in their playoff loss last year, the Highlanders stayed competitive for most of the game with Las Lomas High of Walnut Creek, a team that ended up 13-1 and lost in the state semifinal. Without the A-11, he said, "We would have lost 80-0 to them."
Beyond that, I think it would probably work best as a change-of-pace offense, one that could put a tired defense on its heels at a key point in the game. Humphries didn't disagree with that, pointing out that college teams have been running A-11 trick plays this year, including Mississippi in its win over LSU Saturday. But he also said it's not just trickery.
"Our attitude is we have an unlimited number of trick plays in our arsenal," he said. "It's only limited by your imagination," and here Humphries pointed out that imagination is something he finds sorely lacking in the play-calling of too many big-time college coaches. "But if you run it under this structure, there's a lot you can do that looks like trick plays, but they're not."
Early in the third quarter Friday, Fortuna drove downfield again, looking to extend its 28-7 halftime lead. But Piedmont forced a fumble, recovered and started on its own drive. Finally, the A-11 clicked. Quarterback Jeremy George, a terrific athlete Humphries guessed will end up playing college soccer, made nifty runs, smart decisions and good passes, often on the move.
Receivers came open out of nowhere. Holes opened up in the line. The Highlanders had found their rhythm and they chewed up yardage on their way to a touchdown that made it a game, 28-13.
They never found it again, and though Piedmont played better defense in the second half and Fortuna looked like it got tired late, the Eagles hung on for the convincing win.
For just a few moments though, the A-11 had been dazzling.
"Yeah," Humphries said. "that was it. You saw it."