MISSION VIEJO — They've come to praise Bill Denny, Mission Viejo High School's strong safety/linebacker/fullback. They haven't had much luck blocking him or keeping him from turning a football game in the Diablos' favor.
"I thought Bill Denny, as much as anyone else, was a factor in their emotion," Capistrano Valley Coach Eric Patton said.
Final score: Mission Viejo 28, Capistrano Valley 13.
"He had a very, very good game against us," El Toro Coach Bob Johnson said. "He's a great kid from what I've seen of him. I respect him. I can't say enough about him."
Final: Mission Viejo 21, El Toro 9.
"Our defense is based on reads," Mission Viejo secondary coach Ken Sjobom said. "We tell the kids, 'If they line up in a pro set, you do this. If they line up in an I formation, do this.' At first, they don't know what we're talking about. Bill did. Even when he was a sophomore, he knew."
The record so far: Mission Viejo has 11 victories, one loss. Denny has the honor of being the South Coast League's co-MVP on defense.
Mission Viejo plays Capistrano Valley in the semifinal round of the Southern Section Division II playoffs at 7:30 tonight at Mission Viejo. El Toro plays Paramount in the other semifinal Saturday.
Victories by Mission Viejo and El Toro would set up another rematch in the championship game next week.
"I can't think of a better way to win a championship," Denny said.
The odds would appear to be against Mission Viejo, however. The Diablos have never beaten Capistrano Valley twice in the same season. Nor have they advanced past the semifinals in Denny's three seasons on the varsity.
But Denny has found this season to be different.
Mission Viejo began the year among Orange County's top-10 teams. The Diablos figured to challenge for the league championship and a playoff berth.
But something was missing. Call it confidence.
Denny and Beau LeBreton were the only returning seniors on defense and Denny wasn't expecting much.
Mission Viejo rolled over Long Beach Jordan, 42-12, in the season-opener, but that could have been expected. Mission Viejo then got trounced by Rancho Buena Vista, one of the San Diego Section's top teams. That, too, figured.
The Diablos have won 10 consecutive games since. Some games have been closer than others, but a strong defense, led by Denny, has been a constant.
"We knew we'd have an explosive offense," Denny said. "Once we get a lead on a team, we (the defense) need to slow down the other team and get our offense back on the field."
The theory never worked better than against Capistrano Valley on Oct. 26 and El Toro a week later. Both games were expected to be wide open and high scoring. Both were expected to be won by Mission Viejo's opponents.
But the Diablo defense wrecked that thinking.
"Plain and simple, they kicked our butts," Patton said after Denny and friends had stuffed Capistrano Valley.
"They stopped us when they had to," Johnson said after Mission Viejo neutralized El Toro's passing game. "This is a tough loss. Real tough."
The silence on El Toro's sideline was deafening as the game slipped away in the second half.
Denny seemed to be everywhere, covering receivers, delivering thunderous hits to running backs, even rushing the passer.
For the Capistrano Valley and El Toro games, the Mission Viejo coaching staff shuffled the defense into something resembling Buddy Ryan's aggressive 46 defense.
Denny, a 6-foot-2, 202-pound senior, became a linebacker. The idea was to place an extraordinary amount of pressure on Tony Solliday of Capistrano Valley and Rob Johnson of El Toro, two of the county's best quarterbacks.
Denny won't say for sure, but look for him to be in a similar alignment tonight.
"It doesn't seem that different," Denny said of playing linebacker. "I'm just lining up in a different spot. I like sticking my nose in there."
Football is an easy game for Denny, the son of Diablo defensive line coach, Bill Denny Sr.
"We do have a complicated offense and defense," young Denny said. "But being around my dad, I've always been into football. It comes as second nature."
Denny hopes to parlay his football skills and a 3.9 grade-point average into a college scholarship. Stanford has expressed considerable interest, he said.
But he's not ready to end his high school career just yet.
"This year has been by far the best," he said. "Everything's worked perfectly so far. Hopefully, it won't end tonight."