Andre Aguilar could only watch from the sideline as the Tulare Western High football team sunk to its low point.
The young and then injury-ravaged Mustangs were outscored 84-0 over a six-quarter stretch that included a blown 24-0 halftime lead against Madera en route to a 45-24 loss and a 39-0 blowout by Selma to close the nonleague portion of their season Oct. 2.
All the while, Aguilar, a talented junior quarterback, was in street clothes as he served a Central Section-imposed five-game ban following a transfer from Mission Oak without a full-family move into Tulare Western’s attendance area.
“It was frustrating to see my team lose,” Aguilar said. “I wanted to get on the field bad. The defense just needed the offense to pick it up and do our job.”
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Aguilar has had a major impact on the Mustangs’ fortunes since taking control of their offense at the start of East Yosemite League play.
Tulare Western averaged 17.6 points a game while going 2-3 before Aguilar gained his eligibility. The sixth-seeded Mustangs (7-3) are averaging 33.2 points a game with Aguilar under center heading into their Division III playoff opener at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 11 North (5-5) at Bob Mathias Stadium.
He’s a special player. Hopefully he can help us in the playoffs.
Tulare Western senior linebacker Elijah Alonzo on junior quarterback Andre Aguilar
“He’s a special player. Hopefully he can help us in the playoffs,” senior linebacker Elijah Alonzo said. “It’s good to have a special guy like that on offense. It helps us because when we get a three-and-out (on defense), he can lead our team to a touchdown.”
The 6-foot-1, 165-pound dual threat passed for 483 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 426 yards and four scores as Tulare Western went 5-0 to capture its first EYL title since 2004, capped by a 20-17 victory Nov. 6 over rival and then section No. 12-ranked Tulare in the Bell Game.
“It took a lot of craftiness and some creativeness to pump him up to be the scout team quarterback and keep him in tune,” Mustangs coach Ryan Rocha said. “But the moment he took over, the defense didn’t feel it had to put the team on its back anymore. It was less stress for them. They knew they could go out and just do their job.”
The trust Rocha, his staff and players have developed in Aguilar was best exemplified on a fourth-and-2 against Monache on Oct. 30. Aguilar not only talked Rocha into going for the first down in a punting situation, he correctly suggested a quarterback bootleg would get the job done. Aguilar went for 30 yards on the play, a catalyst to the Mustangs’ 23-14 victory.
“He’s got confidence in his ability and the kids have confidence in him,” Rocha said. “So we play at a higher level.”
33.2 Tulare Western’s points-per-game average since Andre Aguilar took over as the team’s starting quarterback
The Mustangs’ second-half charge continues a turnaround under Rocha, a 2003 Tulare Western grad who returned to his alma mater in 2013 determined to make the program relevant after a five-year run when it went 12-39 with only one playoff appearance.
Tulare Western has won at least seven games and participated in the playoffs in each of Rocha’s three seasons, but the first two ended with losses in the opening round, including 21-9 against ninth-seeded Independence in 2013 when the Mustangs entered No. 1 in D-III.
Part of Rocha’s challenge is getting his players to think beyond beating Tulare in the annual rivalry game, which the Mustangs have done twice in the past three years. Tulare Western hasn’t won a playoff game since 2004, when it reached the D-III final before losing 30-22 to East Bakersfield.
“It’s a weird thing these past couple of years, this Bell Game hangover. We’ve got to grow that mentality that playing football in November is where we want to be, not Week 10,” said Rocha, whose team’s collective 3.4 grade-point average is tops in the Central Section. “We try to preach that it’s up to them – do they want to keep this up and stay on that high or leave on a hangover? This team found new energy in league. And I think they are super excited to continue playing football with their resurgence of energy.”
This team found new energy in league. And I think they are super excited to continue playing football with their resurgence of energy.
Tulare Western football coach Ryan Rocha, whose team won its first East Yosemite League title since 2004
Alonzo – the Mustangs’ leading tackler with 113, including 17 for losses to go along with two interceptions and three forced fumbles – certainly isn’t ready to turn in his gear.
“I’m very confident in the playoffs,” Alonzo said. “We can break that barrier for sure. I feel if we play our game, no one can beat us. That’s my mentality.”