Coach of the Year: Mike Nolte
School: Liberty-Madera Ranchos
His qualifications: Completed a second straight 12-1 and Central Section Division V championship season by defeating two-year reigning D-VI titlist Mendota 31-19 in the final. He had twice in three years led the Hawks to runner-up D-V finishes before this season. Liberty has lost to only D-III Washington in the past two years. Nolte's five-year record with the Hawks: 44-20.
In the beginning: It began without a grand plan, really, a casual phone call six years ago involving Nolte and Liberty athletic director Mike Mazzoni. Actually, it began somewhat lightheartedly just prior to that when Nolte's wife, Jeannie, suggested he "better find a place to coach" after it became clear the-then 15-year Central assistant and longtime deputy to Grizzlies coach Wayne Koligian wouldn't be retained by new Central coach Casey Quinn. So Nolte, via a Mazzoni hiring, assisted Liberty coach Chris Imperatrice in 2008. And, as it played out, Imperatrice resigned a year later, Mazzoni promoted Nolte and … bingo!
Says the boss: "It was kind of a blessing Mike did come over as an assistant because we not only had someone in place to take over, he definitely had the qualifications, having coached under Wayne Koligian. I felt Mike would be a perfect fit here and had no doubt he would be successful." — Mazzoni
System fits the numbers: Liberty, with 650 students and playing in a North Sequoia League averaging 900 elsewhere, has excelled with a run-oriented, wing-T offensive system Nolte in large part culled from Koligian. The Hawks outscored the opposition 412-159 this season after a 448-146 spread in 2012. "It's the kind of offense adaptable to your personnel," says Nolte, a Central High and Fresno State graduate. "I don't think we can always count on big, bruising linemen to push people around. I have to plan for the long term, and my guys are getting pretty good at blocking schemes. It's been beneficial to our situation."
Taking flight: Nolte, who has suited up as few as 25 players in a given year, had 48 in green and gold this season: "It's encouraging; the kids are interested in being a part of something. The excitement is definitely there on campus, that's for sure."
Cory Hall, Clovis North: This was about the plan that wasn't supposed to be: The former Kern County, Fresno State and NFL player, who returned to Fresno four years ago with the intention of assisting the Bulldogs under then-coach Pat Hill, went 32-8 in three seasons as Broncos coach, including 11-3 this year, with two Central Section titles and a runner-up.
Justin Garza, Central: Forget the X's and O's. Two-time cancer beater is 20-7 in two seasons with the Grizzlies.
Jason Murray, Sunnyside: He's 16-8 overall and 10-0 in the North Yosemite League in two seasons with the Wildcats.
Mark Rogers, El Diamante: Won his second D-II title in 10 years despite major issues, particularly involving the Miners' offensive backfield, while going 12-1 and improving to 85-36 since the program's inception.
Ryan Rocha, Tulare Western: Section turnaround program of the year in his first season, as the Mustangs went 7-4 overall — including three losses by a total of 12 points — and 4-1 in the East Yosemite League after going 0-10 the previous season.
Kevin Scharton, Dinuba: Won the D-III title in his third section finals appearance in five seasons. Also won in 2009.
Mark Gambini, Mission Oak: Went 12-1 and was denied a state bowl berth only by a 35-34 D-IV championship loss to Bakersfield Christian. Has gone 31-7 in three seasons while thrusting the young Hawks into section relevancy.
Dave Steele, Kingsburg: No section coach can match his 67-10 record in six years, including a 10-2 mark and Central Sequoia League title-winning season last fall. And to heck with the fact the Vikings — a true D-IV by their 1,075 enrollment — have been elevated to D-II.
Jesse Lira, Lindsay: Has gone 18-6, including 10-0 East Sequoia League mark, in two seasons with Cardinals. And, by the way, required school record-setting field-goal performance from Liberty-Madera Ranchos kicker Seth Wedemeyer to be denied in D-V semifinal 19-10 loss to the top-seeded eventual champion.
Beto Mejia, Mendota: After winning D-VI titles in his first two seasons with the Aztecs, he volunteered up to D-V this season — a virtual unprecedented section request — and his team went 11-2 while placing second to Liberty-Madera Ranchos in the section. He's 32-4 in three seasons.
David Lewis, Farmersville: Went 9-3, won East Sierra League title at 4-0 and captured D-VI championship after placing second in 2012.