It’s been 20 years since Redwood High School last won a Central Section football championship.
But with their second dramatic comeback in the past three weeks, The Fresno Bee’s No. 12-ranked Rangers have the look of a top contender for the Division II title.
Redwood (6-0, 2-0) kept alive an undefeated season with a 24-21 victory Friday over Visalia city rival Golden West, getting the go-ahead score with 1:53 remaining when Frankie Ayon connected with Kobe Garner for a 12-yard touchdown.
The same duo had combined for a 10-yard scoring pass with 24 seconds left that lifted the Rangers over then-No. 13 Tulare Western 27-26 on Sept. 16.
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“There is just something about this team, you know, pulling together and just getting it done,” Redwood coach Shaun Ball said. “They are a pretty special group. To come through and get it done is pretty amazing. I’m just so proud of them. They dig deep.”
The Rangers are coming off a 3-7 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Redwood has emerged as one of 10 undefeated teams across the section this season, along with Clovis (5-0), fellow D-II contender Sanger (5-0), East Bakersfield (6-0), Selma (5-0), Chowchilla (5-0), Chavez (5-0), Mendota (5-0), Firebaugh (5-0) and Strathmore (5-0).
They are a pretty special group. To come through and get it done is pretty amazing. I’m just so proud of them. They dig deep.
Redwood coach Shaun Ball, whose Rangers beat Golden West 24-21 while coming from behind in the final two minutes for the second time in three weeks to remain undefeated at 6-0
The Rangers opened with a 48-7 win over Reedley, downed Division I’s Clovis East 29-14, won a 46-35 shootout over perennial D-II power Tulare, then edged Tulare Western before running away from two-time defending league champ Lemoore 31-14 on Sept. 23 in their WYL opener.
“It feels great,” Ayon said. “Compared to where we were last year, I couldn’t be happier.”
Ayon engineered the seven-play, 84-yard winning drive even though he left the field for one down while recovering from being leveled on a play that ended in a pass-interference penalty against the Trailblazers (4-1, 0-1).
Ayon returned to hit Garner for a 29-yard pass into Golden West territory, then Ayon’s 11-yard scramble set the stage for his touchdown pass to Garner.
“We had one goal in mind: That was just to score,” Ayon said. “And we did just that. I had faith in my team and all my brothers. It was a crazy game and phenomenal finish. We never let down.”
Garner, Redwood’s leading receiver this season, had been held in check until the final drive, when he caught three passes for 49 yards.
“We were down and needed a spark,” said Garner, a three-year varsity basketball standout in his first season of football. “Coach kept telling me to ‘be patient; be patient and your time will come.’ I was patient.
“Our team was pumped, man. You can’t count us out. We’re always fighting.”
Redwood can take another stop toward ending a 12-year league title drought when it plays at Hanford (4-2, 2-0) next Friday, Oct. 7.
Eagles soaring – Jeshua and Adrian Gutierrez put on quite the brothers act Friday.
Jeshua, a sophomore, and Adrian, a senior, combined for seven interceptions and five touchdowns as Firebaugh rolled past Parlier 70-6 to extend its best start since opening 9-0 in 2013.
Jeshua had six of the interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, and also scored on a 70-yard punt return and a 42-yard reception for the Eagles, who are ranked No. 2 in Division V by The Bee.
Adrian had the other interception, which he returned for a score as Firebaugh continued its impressive start under first-year coach Dejon Kelly, a former Fresno State offensive lineman who was part of section-title teams as a player at Clovis in 1997 and as an assistant at Clovis North in 2013.
“We have the dynamic to be a Valley championship team,” Kelly said. “I feel that same sense with these kids.”
In addition to the Gutierrez brothers, the Eagles have been led defensively by middle linebackers Julian Banda and Josh Medina, defensive lineman Jake Tatarkis and defensive backs Tylor Palmer and Tito Campa.
Firebaugh’s uptempo spread offense is averaging 40.6 points per game behind quarterback Noey Garcia, who is passing for more than 170 yards a game while throwing for 12 touchdowns against two interceptions.
Palmer has been an all-purpose threat as a slot back with 10 touchdowns and AJ Molina is the Eagles’ leading rusher.
A potential huge game looms for Firebaugh on Oct. 14 at D-V top-ranked Mendota should the Eagles and Aztecs extend undefeated seasons in their West Sierra League openers Oct. 7. Firebaugh hosts Tranquillity (2-3) while Mendota plays at Dos Palos (2-3).
“It’s been a great start. We’ve got really good kids. They work hard and have bought into what we are doing,” Kelly said. “I’m really excited to see where we can go. That (Mendota game) will be the game to really judge how good we are.”
Spartans soaring, too – Jeromy Blackwell admits it’s usually not too difficult to figure out the player to stop at Strathmore.
That’s in part because of the 16-year Spartans coach’s tendency to operate a run-dominant offense, and due to the fact the school of fewer than 800 students typically doesn’t have an abundance of weapons.
But that isn’t the case this season, and it comes as no coincidence the Spartans are off to their best start since winning their first seven games in 2007, following a 22-0 shutout Friday of Avenal, last year’s D-VI runner-up.
“At a school this size, you usually have one kid you ride,” said Blackwell, whose team is ranked third in D-VI by The Bee. “But we have a lot of good kids who make it hard for people to defend us. And defensively, we are hustling all over the place.”
Joseph Garcia has been Strathmore’s primary rusher, with 692 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season, including 118 and a score against Avenal.
Garcia is far from the only threat. Fellow running backs Edgar Barajas (who scored twice against Avenal), Erik Flores and Alonso Acevedo are all averaging at least 4.9 yards per carry.
And quarterback Nick Salas is completing 66 percent of his passes to a group of strong receivers that includes Andres Lara, Gilbert Acevedo and Daniel Guzman.
“For the first time in about 10 years, we’ve got a good-looking quarterback who can stretch the field in all different directions,” Blackwell said. “We’re usually 75 percent run heavy, but we’re way more balanced this year because we’ve got a quarterback that can do it, and weapons around him and an offensive line that can protect the guy.”
Winning helps, but they are getting themselves ready to play. They are a great class of kids. They are having a whole lot of fun playing the greatest game on Earth.
Strathmore coach Jeromy Blackwell on the camaraderie created by the Spartans’ 5-0 start
Blackwell said his team has “something special working” and that the players genuinely enjoy being around each other. Strathmore is out to win the fourth section title in school history and first since 2009.
“There are years where kids are like, ‘We’ve got to go to practice? It’s a drag,’ ” Blackwell said. “But every day right now is awesome. And the kids are like, ‘Practice is already over? It’s so much fun.’ Winning helps, but they are getting themselves ready to play. They are a great class of kids. They are having a whole lot of fun playing the greatest game on Earth.”
Strathmore opens East Sierra League play Friday when it will host Woodlake (3-2).
Stadium opening – Defending section D-V champion and reigning CIF State Division V-AA runner-up Immanuel will play in its new stadium this season after all.
County Line Stadium at the Immanuel Sports Complex will host its first game Friday – the Eagles’ homecoming, no less – against Dinuba. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for 7 p.m. and kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
Immanuel had hoped to play this season in the school’s first football stadium after previously playing most of its home games at Reedley High. But the stadium didn’t gain clearance from Fresno County inspectors in time and the Eagles scheduled three home games at Reedley and one at Dinuba.
The 1-3 Eagles, who had a bye this week, will also play in their new home Oct. 28 against Kingsburg.
The Immanuel Sports Complex is at 42675 Road 44 in Reedley.