The road is never easy in the Inland Division, and it really never seems easy for Southwestern League football teams.
When the CIF Southern Section football playoff pairings were released Sunday morning, the three Southwestern League playoff programs drew only one first-round home game; the first-place, seeded team drew a historically tough program, and the second-place club could see the No. 1 team in the state in the second round.
Overall, nine Valley 11-man teams qualified for the playoffs, and three -- Vista Murrieta, Heritage and Elsinore -- were seeded in their respective divisions. The Broncos received the area's highest seed at No. 2.
Vista Murrieta (9-1) plays host to Covina Charter Oak (6-4), a team with a talented offense led by longtime coach Lou Farrar, who has won four section championships, the most recent coming two seasons ago.
"They're a very good football team," Broncos coach Coley Candaele said. "That's going to be a good, tough game for us."
Section rules dictate that a first-place team must play a third-place team or an at-large bid in the first round. Outside of Norco, Charter Oak was probably the toughest third-place team, Candaele said.
Chargers junior quarterback Travis Santiago (21 touchdown, nine interceptions) has a trio of talented receivers to throw to in Dennis Rufus, Chris Gilchrist and Jonathan Thropay
"They have three wide receivers that go 6-(foot)-4, 6-5, 6-6 and run like deer," Candaele said. "They have a quarterback that's probably the best quarterback we've seen all year."
Chaparral (4-6) wound up second in the Southwestern League after Temecula Valley knocked Great Oak from playoff contention on Friday night and put Murrieta Valley in as the league's third-place team.
For the Pumas, though, that meant a tough first-round matchup against Upland, the Baseline League's second-place team and another program with historic success -- the Highlanders have won section crowns twice under coach Tim Salter.
Should Chaparral -- the defending Inland Division champion that lost four consecutive games to start the season to state powers Oceanside, Fresno Central, Centennial and Anaheim Servite -- win, it would likely see the Huskies in the second round in a rematch of last year's Inland Division semifinal won by the Pumas.
"Obviously, right now, Centennial seems like a cut above everyone," Pumas coach Tommy Leach said. "The good thing is that if we do beat Upland, we could very well get Centennial at home.
"Hopefully, there would be 5 inches of rain in a downpour and it floods our natural field, so we could slow them down a little," he added, only half-jokingly.
Leach said he and his coaches also joked that being the league's third-place team would have been better. They may have been right.
Murrieta Valley (6-4) travels to third-seeded Rancho Cucamonga for a first-round game. Should the Nighthawks prevail in an upset, they would get the Eastvale Roosevelt-Claremont winner in the second round. That's no walk in the park, but it's not Centennial, either.
Overall, the Inland Division has continued to improve, and that made for a more difficult draw as a group.
"It's really tough," Leach said. "I think the parity, as far as the level (of play), is going up. Some of our records aren't the best, but I think a lot of us are trying to play tougher opponents to get ready for a tough playoff bracket."
In the Eastern Division, two Sunbelt League teams received seeds, as Heritage (10-0) was No. 3 and Elsinore (9-1) fourth. Victorville Silverado awaits the Patriots, and they could see either Fontana Summit (7-2-1), the fifth-ranked team in the division, or West Valley (5-5) in the second round.
Elsinore (8-2), which lost only to Heritage and Murrieta Valley, might have actually gotten an easier road with an opening-round matchup against Hesperia Oak Hills, and a possible second-round game against the Victor Valley-Riverside Norte Vista winner. Temescal Canyon (6-4), the Sunbelt League's third-place team, travels to second-seeded Phelan Serrano for the first round.
Defending section champion Linfield Christian (6-4) opens at Big Bear in an East Valley Division first-round game that could get moved to Saturday -- Big Bear's home field, Big Bear Middle School, does not have lights. A win would advance the Lions to a second-round game against second-seeded San Juan Capistrano St. Margeret's or at-large bid Valley Village Campbell Hall.
Hamilton (6-2) didn't get any favors, drawing Pasadena Poly on the road for a first-round, Northeast Division game. And should the Bobcats get an upset there, they could see second-seeded Lancaster Desert Christian in the second round.