The Central Section Division V football championship is two months away -- and none too soon for discussion at Liberty-Madera Ranchos.
"Man, we've been close, but we've got to get that thing sometime," says Hawks coach Mike Nolte, who's taken the silver medal twice -- 21-17 last year to Fowler and 31-28 in 2009 to Corcoran.
But Liberty, flying to a 3-0 start with wins over Farmersville (47-6), neighbor rival Madera South (38-0) and all-sport rival Fowler (35-25), appears fit to capture its first gold in the program's ninth season of varsity football.
There are 16 starters back -- eight on each side of the ball, including two-way standouts Cody Sanders (tackle/linebacker), Logan Doss (utility offense/strong safety), Paul Vandergriff (tackle/ defensive end) and Wade Wallace (running back/ cornerback).
Memorial transfer Rene Luis (guard/linebacker) has made an immediate impact, Johnny Aviles is starting for the second year at nose guard and Logan Pierce and Eddie Camberos team with Wallace in a seasoned secondary.
Wallace, still only a sophomore, has rushed for 337 yards and four touchdowns as the go-to back in a wing-T offense averaging 271 yards on the ground.
"With the number of kids returning in key spots, the expectations are pretty high," Nolte says. "We really feel we'll be there in the end again."
Liberty will visit Corcoran (1-2) tonight and host Caruthers (1-2) next Friday before opening North Sequoia League play at Yosemite on Oct. 5.
Tucker Mendonca, Darius Armstead and Co. lead high-scoring Mt. Whitney into a dandy of a West Yosemite League opener tonight, with the seventh-ranked Pioneers hosting No. 12 and city rival El Diamante at Visalia's Mineral King Bowl.
Mt. Whitney -- averaging 46 points per game behind QB Mendonca (827 yards, 7 TDs) and WR Armstead (15 catches, 365 yards, 4 TDs) during a 3-0 start -- is out to do something it hasn't done in 11 years: win the WYL title.
The chase begins against a Miners team that has won five of the past seven league titles and is expected to be a top contender again this year.
"These are the times we've been working for since last January," Pioneers coach Marty Martin says. "All the hard work we've put in is to get us in a position to control our own destiny and compete and win a WYL championship. This is the first step in hopefully making that happen."
PLAYER IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Isaiah Justice, Bullard: The 11th-ranked Knights (2-1) are progressively building their team around the 5-11, 170- pound junior. Besides anchoring the defense at safety and also returning kicks, Justice has now played every skill position in the offense after a quarterback package was created specifically for him. And it was out of that package, in relief of starting quarterback Niko Pacheco, that Justice carried six times for 89 yards and a game-opening 34-yard touchdown run last week in a 28-14 nonleague win over Clovis East. "He's so electric when the ball's in his hands," Knights coach Donnie Arax says. "He's one of those classic high school athletes who has whatever, you can't define it -- one of those IT factors. And he has it."
HE SAID IT
"From where we were three years ago, getting shellacked (66-0) by Lindsay, to be in this position, to where the school has grown, the program has grown and the JV and freshmen both 3-0, I couldn't be happier." -- coach Mark Gambini of Mission Oak, which is 3-0, top-ranked in The Bee's Division IV and No. 2 in the state South D-III for bowl purposes in its fourth season of varsity football. The Hawks opened their first season in 2009 without seniors, losing to Lindsay (66-0), Hanford West (58-0), Corcoran (49-0) and Clovis North (61-7).
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH
No. 3 Clovis North (4-0) at Merced (3-1): The Broncos, who have won eight straight in two seasons, have this final nonleague game before opening the Tri-River Athletic Conference against Clovis West next Friday. But they'll have to maintain their A game on the road against the Bears, who have beaten Clovis West and were a couple of major breaks away from conquering No. 9 Edison, as well.
No. 20 Clovis West (0-3) at No. 11 Bullard (2-1): Sure, the Golden Eagles are 0-3 -- just as they were at this time last year when they lost 35-32 to a Bullard team that would finish second in D-I. "They've got some defensive issues," Arax says. "But when you look back over the last three years, their offense really hasn't been stopped."
Hanford (0-4) at Hanford West (3-1): Why watch this? Because a Bullpups six-game winning streak against their intracity rival is clearly in jeopardy in a WYL opener that will pack Neighbor Bowl.
Follow us: Keep up with the action tonight at fresnobee.com/blitz and on Twitter @scoopysports. Coverage will be provided by Andy Boogaard (Bakersfield at Buchanan) and Nick Giannandrea (El Diamante vs. Mt. Whitney, Mineral King Bowl). Coaches: Got a score to report? Call (559) 441-6379 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.