Inland Empire: Games of the week

The schedule shows Norco is hosting Vista Murrieta in an Inland Division second-round game Friday night, but this match-up has all the appearances of a semifinal.

Norco (9-2) finished third in the Big VIII League, however, the Cougars might just be the second-best team in this division. They also tend to peak this time of year, owning a 19-5 postseason record since 2003, including Inland Division titles in 2006-07.

Norco freshman quarterback Coltin Gerhart has his favorite receiver back, tight end Joshua Long, who missed seven games with a shoulder injury. Stanford-bound running back Kelsey Young has been one of the top ball carriers in the Southland this season.

Vista Murrieta (10-1) is seeded second after winning the Southwestern League. The Broncos are led by Utah-bound quarterback Derrick Brown, who threw a 32-yard touchdown pass with about two minutes left in last season’s semifinals against Norco, lifting Vista Murrieta to a 34-33 victory.

What differentiates these teams is the strength of their schedules this season. The Broncos only played two teams that are still alive in the playoffs. Norco has played five.

Another Inland Division game to see:

Rancho Cucamonga (10-1) at Eastvale Roosevelt (9-2), Friday – These teams don’t feature any star recruits, they just play a hard and fast brand of football.

Rancho Cucamonga running back Sateki Finau has rushed for at least 147 yards in six consecutive games, and quarterback Dimitri Morales has 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last five games for the third-seeded Cougars.

Roosevelt quarterback Aaron Crone has been similarly efficient, throwing 21 touchdown passes while being intercepted just four times. In the last four games, he has completed 68% of his passes. Sam Boyd has been his No. 1 target, hauling in 43 receptions for 802 yards and nine touchdowns.

Both teams played Murrieta Valley this season with similar results. Roosevelt beat the Nighthawks, 33-12, in Week 2. Rancho Cucamonga knocked off Murrieta Valley, 37-13, in the first round of the playoffs.

ESPNLA.com’s pick: Roosevelt 31, Rancho Cucamonga 27.

In the Central Division:

Palm Springs (10-1) at Colton (8-3), Friday – Second-seeded Palm Springs has a bonafide do-it-all play-maker in Nephi Garcia, who has rushed for 1,200 yards and 20 touchdowns, intercepted three passes, averaged 48.4 yards on 24 punts, owns four field goals and 21 touchbacks.

Colton running back Tyler Ervin missed three San Andreas League games with a leg injury, but showed last week he’s back in form, rushing for a season-high 176 yards in 20 carries and scoring two touchdowns in an impressive 54-13 victory against Ontario Colony.

Both teams played La Quinta this season. The Yellowjackets lost to the Blackhawks, 14-3, in Week 2. Palm Springs beat La Quinta, 16-7, in a Desert Valley League game on Nov. 5.

Palm Springs won the Eastern Division title last season.

ESPNLA.com’s pick: Colton 22, Palm Springs 21.

In the Eastern Division:

Fontana Summit (8-2-1) vs. Romoland Heritage (11-0) at Fontana Miller High, Friday – Both of these teams have the weapons to reach the championship game, but one will be sent home early.

Summit has one of the top athletes in the Inland Empire in Devon Blackmon, who rotates among quarterback, receiver and running back. Blackmon has scholarship offers from USC, UCLA and Oregon, among others.

The paint has barely dried on the Heritage goal posts, as the second-seeded Patriots are in just their second season of varsity competition. Still, they’ve managed to stay unbeaten thus far and will go a long way toward proving their a legitimate force in the Inland Empire with a victory against the SkyHawks.

The Patriots will continue to lean on running back Scott Benson, who has rushed for 1,254 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.

ESPNLA.com’s pick: Summit 31, Heritage 28.