The clock ticks 7 on this evening in a north Central Valley region most commonly referred to as Madera Ranchos, and coach Mike Nolte stands just off a parking lot at the local high school.
To his right, as light is rapidly giving way to dark, the Liberty High varsity football team has retreated to the locker room after practice.
They run the wing-T offense.
To his left, about 30 lads surely of NFL aspirations are creating an ant pile in helmets and pads hardly less weight than their own at ages 9 and 10. Their colors match the high school’s green and gold. Their practice could use lanterns now, yet they continue unimpeded. They count Nolte’s son, Jared. And Mom, Jeannie, follows not a shanked punt away via a lawnchair.
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They run the wing-T.
To Nolte’s west, the community’s seventh- and eighth-grade teams, the “Juniors” and “Seniors,” plow away in this same basin adjacent to Avenue 12, only they are illuminated with one generator-powered light.
And, yes, they are running the wing-T.
We talk the same football language and that makes for a lot easier transition through the levels. It’s kind of neat.
Liberty-Madera Ranchos coach Mike Nolte, whose four youth teams deploy the same wing-T offense as the high school teams.
“We talk the same football language,” says Nolte, who was groomed on the run-oriented, deception-based offense as a longtime deputy under former Central coach Wayne Koligian. “And that makes for a lot easier transition through the levels. It’s kind of neat.”
Maybe that explains it.
How else to explain how Liberty-Madera Ranchos, drawing from an enrollment of 580 – smaller than virtually every school it plays – has gone 41-2 in three-plus seasons with three Central Section titles and an ongoing, state-leading 22-game winning streak?
How else to explain how the Hawks’ winning percentage since the beginning of the 2012 season (.953) has only been exceeded in the state by De La Salle-Concord (.958, 46-2), merely the most glorified prep football program in the land?
.953Hawks winning percentage (41-2) since the beginning of the 2012 season
“Because they do it the right way, man,” says Fowler coach Kyle Biggs, two weeks after leading Liberty 21-7 at halftime at home, only to lose 40-37. “They build within the Pop Warner program, they’re excited about the wing-T and by the time they get to high school, they know how to run it.
“They’ve had success and kids coming up want to be part of that success; that’s the expectation. I talk about Liberty often with my kids in the offseason. We want to emulate them; we want to do things the right way as they do. I want my kids to come up through the Pop Warner program and be proud to be a Fowler Redcat as they do to be a Liberty Hawk.”
Domestic dandies have become commonplace at Liberty.
For most recent examples: quarterback Zach Richey, running back/defensive end Richie Brandt and running back/defensive back Wade Wallace were Bee All-Stars last year on a 13-0 Hawks team that won the D-IV title after consecutive D-V championships.
And their younger brothers, tight end/linebacker Owen Richey, quarterback/defensive end Markie Brandt and running back/safety Chad Wallace are starting on a 4-0 team that will play at home Friday night against 3-1 Madera South in a duel of D-IV powers sure to attract a capacity crowd.
Madera South has 2,757 students.
Throw out Liberty and private school Central Valley Christian (262) and the 19-school D-IV averages 1,610 in enrollment.
It’s the result of a section alignment policy that shapes divisions by recent performance, not size.
Does Nolte play the numbers card with his players? Absolutely.
“It’s rewarding to beat bigger schools,” he says, “and don’t think we (as coaches) don’t use that a little bit, too, especially last year, when they bumped us to D-IV. To win the Valley again was huge.”
Interestingly, there’s actually little talk among coaches and players of The Streak, which was launched with a 34-7 North Sequoia League win at Kerman on Nov. 1, 2013.
“Well, it’s on our minds, but we try not to focus on it,” says Wallace, a three-year starter, but one of only three starters returning from last season. “We try not to let it dictate the way we play. We just want to come out and play our hearts out; that what we do.”
Wallace remembers well the program’s last loss – 26-18 to Washington in an NSL game on Oct. 25, 2013, played at Fowler because the Panthers’ stadium was being rebuilt: “A tough game, a hard fight, and they got us in the end.”
Regarding The Streak and the mounting pressure that goes with it, Nolte says: “It’s out there and you obviously would love to keep that thing going, but we just try to keep the kids focused and go 1-0 for the week.”
He does allow for a streak-induced fear and an inevitable loss, somewhere, sometime: “As a coach, I don’t want it to be devastating, so devastating we can’t come back the next week.”
For now, the seven-year coach with a 61-20 record (.753) is enjoying the most marvelous run in Central Section football.
“It’s been a great ride, that’s for sure,” he says. “Good kids and talent make good coaches. We’ve had them and they’ve bought into what we’re doing. Put these kids together for a lot of coaches and they’d have success.
“Personally, I do feel good about all the accomplishments. But I realize, at the same time, I’m not alone in this deal. It takes a lot of people to be successful – coaching staff, wife, community, administration. And the kids, they love each other, play hard together, hang out together and they’ve grown up together, for the most part.
“It’s really a special thing.”
Liberty-Madera Ranchos’ state-leading 22-game
Nov. 1, 2013
Nov. 8, 2013
Nov. 22, 2013
Nov. 29, 2013
*Dec. 6, 2013
Aug. 29, 2014
Sept. 5, 2014
Sept. 12, 2014
at Madera South
Sept. 19, 2014
Sept. 26, 2014
Oct. 10, 2014
Oct. 17, 2014
Oct. 24, 2014
Oct. 31, 2014
Nov. 7, 2014
Nov. 21, 2014
Nov. 28, 2014
vs. Golden West
#Dec. 5, 2014
Aug. 28, 2015
Sept. 4, 2015
Sept. 18, 2015
Sept. 25, 2015
* – Division V championship
# – Division IV championship