Quarterback Cole Norris has guided Newport Harbor High to the CIF Souhtern Section Southwest Division championship game.

Quarterback Cole Norris has guided Newport Harbor High to the CIF Souhtern Section Southwest Division championship game. (SCOTT SMELTZER / Daily Pilot / December 5, 2013)

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Any time the Newport Harbor High football team holds a practice on Thanksgiving, the Sailors are in for a treat.

Players from the past returned to campus last week and spoke to the team. It has been a tradition under Coach Jeff Brinkley to bring back alumni. The day they come is the day before the Sailors play in the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section playoffs.

The message players like Chris Manderino give is easy. Enjoy this moment because it will be the best time of your life.

The Sailors tend to respond afterward, keeping their season alive, as they're 8-2 in the semifinals under Brinkley. His team gets to compete one more time.

Manderino has been on this stage before, his last time 13 years ago. Now it's these current Sailors turn to experience the big game.

The Sailors are making their eighth section finals appearance in Brinkley's 28 years at the helm. They face Huntington Beach in the Southwest Division final at Angel Stadium on Saturday at 2 p.m.

The afternoon game is different for Brinkley and the Sailors. They're used to playing under the lights and in a smaller venue.

What they are familiar with is the opponent on the field. For the second time this season, the Sailors (8-5) and Oilers (8-5) will meet.

The first time Huntington Beach won in a 40-14 rout. Brinkley walked off the field disappointed, his team unable to share the Sunset League title. That night in Huntington Beach on Nov. 8, he never figured to see the Oilers again this year, not after the two teams closed out the regular season.

"I didn't think they would get in [the playoffs], not because I didn't think they were a good football team," said Brinkley, whose team shared second place with Fountain Valley and Los Alamitos, while Huntington Beach placed fifth in the six-team league. "I thought that they wouldn't get in [as an at-large team] because I've never seen them take two at-large teams from the same league."

That same league has two teams in the Southwest Division championship.

Losing out on a Sunset League crown might have been the best thing to happen to the Sailors. Since suffering their worst loss of the season, the Sailors are playing their best football.

Newport Harbor has won three in a row, beating the likes of Dana Hills, 32-13, on the road in the first round, upsetting top-seeded La Habra, 49-48, at home in the quarterfinals and then knocking off Fullerton, 28-17, at home in the semifinals. The winning streak is the Sailors' longest this year.

To finish the year as a winner, the Sailors are going to have to slow down quarterback Kai Ross. The senior has the Oilers rolling, averaging five touchdowns per game during their four-game winning streak.

Ross is the third straight dual-threat quarterback Newport Harbor will see. The Sailors turned in their best defensive effort last week in stopping Fullerton's Scott Lloyd (132 passing yards and 41 rushing yards), but Ross is a more dynamic quarterback.

Ross has completed 157 of 271 passes for 2,072 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. He has rushed 135 times for 718 yards and nine touchdowns.

In the postseason, Ross has led the Oilers past the Empire League, Sea View League and Sunset League champions. They opened the playoffs with a 31-14 upset at second-seeded Yorba Linda, followed by a 42-14 quarterfinal win at home against San Juan Hills, and then a 28-21 semifinal win on the road against third-seeded Edison.

"Obviously they kicked our tail last time out, so I would probably say they would be [the favorite] going in," said Brinkley, whose team allowed Ross to rush 16 times for 120 yards and three touchdowns and complete 10 of 13 passes for 91 yards and one touchdown.

This section title run is different from the past seven for Brinkley. His Sailors had gone into the championship with double-digit wins every time, until this year.

While the current Sailors aren't as dominant as those section finalist teams, they have shown they can compete with anyone.