Bullard High's boys soccer team played sub-.500 ball before County/Metro Athletic Conference play started.
But that relative lack of success -- 5-7-2 against a who's who list of the Central Section's top teams this season -- didn't bother coach Igal Francis a bit.
"The key is always to get them to play their best at this time of year," Francis said. "And I think we're close."
The nonconference tests that Francis put the Knights through -- against the likes of Clovis North, Reedley, Golden West, Roosevelt and Central, all teams that have been or are currently ranked in The Bee's Central Section Top 10 -- seem to be paying off.
CMAC champion and No. 7-ranked Bullard tuned up for the section playoffs by getting two goals from Alex Yokley in a 3-0 victory over Edison on Thursday that pushed the Knights' unbeaten streak to 10 games.
Bullard appears to be in position to receive top-four seed in Division I when pairings are announced for the section's six boys and girls playoff divisions Saturday.
Clovis North, Central, Buchanan, Bakersfield and West also should be in the conversation.
"We're definitely a top-four seed. I'd be disappointed if we weren't," Francis said. "The boys have worked hard all year. We're under the radar a little bit, so teams don't think we are as good as we are. But we'll go into the playoffs and see what happens."
Yokley, who scored the only goal Bullard would need in the 44th minute, said the Knights (13-7-4, 8-0-2) have come a long way since their nonconference schedule, which ended with a frustrating 3-0 loss at Central.
"After that loss, it was time to get our heads on straight," Yokley said. "We found our team chemistry since then. We're a family now, coming close together."
Bullard's cohesion was on display throughout the second half.
First, Yokley perfectly timed his run at the near post to head in a corner kick from Justice Vasquez.
A few minutes later, Vasquez delivered another well-placed corner to the far post, where Juan Gonzales was waiting to head it in for a 2-0 lead.
"I felt them coming, especially the second one," Vasquez said. "I can always trust my team to get those."
For the final goal, Yokley found himself in the perfect spot to receive a one-tapper from Danzel Gempis, which he hammered home to put Bullard up 3-0.
And from there, what defenders Gonzales, Emil Tilghman, John Cossette and Sam Martin didn't clear, goalkeeper Peter Larsen smothered or punched away.
"In my four years here, we've never been as close a team as we are now. That's what's doing it for us," Yokley said. "I feel we are capable of taking Valley if we play our game. The hardest team we've played this year is ourselves. We have everything -- skill and stamina -- its just the mental game that's thrown us off."
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