I.E.: The final Top 10

Well, that’s a wrap on the 2011 high school football season. The Inland Empire is certainly more respected than ever for what it accomplished this fall, beating Pac-5 Division foes Mission Viejo, Alemany, Crespi, Loyola, Tesoro and Mater Dei. They also staged a few memorable matchups against each other, none better than Vista Murrieta’s 35-28 come-from-behind victory against defending champion Corona Centennial in the Inland Division championship game. Here’s a look at the final top 10 of the season.

1. Vista Murrieta, 9-5 – The Broncos went undefeated on the field, beating state-ranked J.W. North, Upland and Centennial in the final three rounds of the Inland Division playoffs. Vista Murrieta self-reported an ineligible player prior to Southwestern League play -- a player who would quickly become eligible --leading to the forfeiture of all five nonleague victories. Many believe the Broncos deserved a state bowl bid but were passed up in favor of two-loss Santa Margarita, largely due to their forfeits. Vista Murrieta will be an early favorite to make the trip next season, as its best player, running back/strong safety Su’a Cravens, is set to return, as well as quarterback Nicholas Stevens and middle linebacker Bryce Smith, the Inland Division’s leading tackler.

2. Corona Centennial, 12-2 – Before the season, Centennial coach Matt Logan said the Huskies would need four or five games to find their footing. Try six quarters. The Huskies won 12 straight after their season-opening loss to St. Bonaventure, all but one by a wide margin. They quickly developed chemistry between a veteran offensive line and first-year senior starters Hayden Gavett at quarterback and Romello Goodman at running back and churned out yardage like past seasons. They came up one drive short against Vista Murrieta, however.

3. Upland, 12-1 – For most of the season, the Highlanders seemed like the front runner to unseat Centennial, but they ran into the same Vista Murrieta storm as the Huskies and saw their run end with a 39-18 semifinal loss. Still, they opened plenty of eyes with a 38-23 nonleaguue victory against L.A. private-school power Loyola and another one-sided victory against Baseline League foe Rancho Cucamonga.

4. Rancho Cucamonga, 11-2 – With 14 starters back from a team that lost in double overtime of the 2010 Inland Division semifinals, the Cougars came into this season ranked No. 2 in the ESPNLA Inland Empire preseason rankings. They weren’t as prepared as Upland and lost that clash, but got off the mat to beat fourth-seeded Redlands East Valley in the Inland Division quarterfinals and then put a scare into top-seeded Centennial in the semis before ultimately losing, 41-21.

5. Redlands East Valley, 11-1 – Give the Wildcats credit for turning the national spotlight on the I.E. in Week 5 with their 10-7 victory against nationally ranked Mission Viejo. They went on to finish the regular season undefeated but fell back into their habit of losing early in the playoffs. A nonleague victory against City Section-power Dorsey also stands bright on their resume.

6. Rancho Verde, 14-0 – Despite their glossy records, it has been difficult the last few seasons to slot where the Mustangs belong in the rankings. Compared to the higher-ranked I.E. teams, Rancho Verde plays in a less-competitive league and weaker division, and doesn’t stack their nonleague schedule with quality opponents. They were certainly good enough to win the Central Division title this season. Hopefully the re-leaguing process this spring will place Rancho Verde with better competition.

7. J.W. North, 10-2 – The Huskies were actually the first I.E. team to score a big-time victory against an out-of-area superpower. They hosted Alemany on Sept. 16 at Riverside College and won, 36-35, on a late two-point conversion. Alemany went on to win the Serra League title. North looked to be on a roll heading into the Inland Division playoffs but with quarterback Justin Gheorghe ailing with a shoulder injury, the Huskies were no match for Vista Murrieta.

8. Summit, 13-1 – After losing in the Eastern Division finals a year earlier, the SkyHawks wouldn’t be denied against Heritage this season, scoring on a fourth-quarter drive to win the program’s first title. Only a season-opening loss to Etiwanda prevented a perfect season.

9. Heritage, 12-2 – The paint has barely dried at four-year-old Heritage but already the Patriots have won two straight Sunbelt League titles and experienced a championship game on their home field.

10. Palm Springs, 13-1 – The Indians strung together another impressive season, reaching the section finals for the second time in three years. They ran into a Rancho Verde team that was hungry to avenge its defeat in last season’s Central Division final and lost for the first time in 24 home games.

Just missed: Serrano, Citrus Hill, Moreno Valley, Colony, Chaparral, La Sierra, Kaiser, San Gorgonio, Chino, Carter, Corona Santiago, Norco.