Central Section football entered the homestretch Friday night, a critical point of the season.
There would be only two regular season weeks remaining and, while surely, many league titles will be secured Nov. 4, many as well could be greatly impacted with slips here in late October.
Sanger took care of business; others didn’t:
▪ Second-ranked Clovis, unbeaten but eight days previous, virtually precluded the possibility of snatching a Tri-River Athletic Conference co-championship in a 28-13 loss to No. 7 Buchanan – the Cougars’ second-straight defeat while falling two games behind the section’s hottest team in the Central Section.
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▪ Redwood, 7-0, ranked No. 11 and seemingly in prime position to capture its first outright conference title in 12 years following wins over seemingly its chief West Yosemite League challengers in No. 19 Hanford and No. 18 Golden West, lost 19-9 to El Diamante. And that to a Miners team beaten 21-0 by Hanford three weeks earlier. The WYL logjamshows Redwood (3-1), Golden West (3-1), Hanford (3-2), El Diamante (2-2), Mt. Whitney (2-2) and Lemoore (2-2).
▪ Washington, having risen to No. 3 in The Bee’s Division IV rankings and pursuing a third 5-0 North Sequoia League record in four seasons, lost 35-20 at Liberty-Madera Ranchos in the latest of what’s grown into a duel in the conference. Perhaps the result was no surprise when taking a closer look: Liberty, a section champion from 2012-14, has won five straight this season after an 0-3 start in losses by a total of 10 points.
There’s major concern in the Hawks’ nest, however.
Christian Baker, one of the section’s elite players as a running back and middle linebacker, injured his left knee in the final minute on a rushing attempt near the end zone.
14 Rushing touchdowns this season by Liberty-Madera Ranchos senior Christian Baker, who injured a knee in the win over Washington
Liberty coach Mike Nolte said the severity of the injury hasn’t been determined for the 5-foot-9, 210-pound senior with 806 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns and a team second-best 60 tackles.
“He was in a lot of pain (Friday night) but felt better (Saturday morning), so we don’t know,” Nolte said. “He’s really been playing well on both sides of the ball. To play without him would be a big loss, that’s for sure.”
Back to Sanger.
It’s clear sailing now for several Apaches objectives.
Having already defeated No. 8 Bullard in the County/Metro Athletic Conference, No. 6 Sanger dominated its other annual calendar-circling league foe, Edison, with a 28-18 decision at McLane Stadium.
Andrew Azua apologized for one mistake – a goal-line fumble – by rushing for 165 yards and two touchdowns as the Apaches improved to 8-0 overall and 3-0 in the CMAC while marching toward the league title, a D-II top seed and coach Chuck Shidan’s 200th victory.
Shidan, in his 27th and likely final year at Sanger, has 198, according to section historian Bob Barnett, entering two final regular-season games in which the Apaches will be prohibitive favorites at home against Madera on Friday and at Memorial Nov. 4.
Section seeding, as determined largely by a coaches poll, will be announced Nov. 5 and playoffs will begin a week later.
It will be then that Sanger will attempt to capture a fourth section title under Shidan, the ideal getaway party for the man who has made clear – while not making an official announcement – of his intention to retire as a coach.
Azua was maybe never better than Friday night, when he carried 27 times and scored on runs of 11 and 1 yards out of the program’s customary wing-T.
The 1-yarder with 1 minute, 24 seconds remaining in the first half was the most impressive, and here’s why: The Apaches, leading 14-10, had reached the Edison 1-yard line on their previous possession. It was there that Azua was stripped by Jake Hanson and fumbled, with the Tigers’ Teyjohn Harrington recovering.
When Sanger resumed possession a few minutes later on the Edison 32, Azua carried on all six plays, capped by the 1-yard TD.
I’m glad coaches have faith in me because I have faith in my team.
Sanger’s Andrew Azua after carrying the ball six consecutive times following a fumble against Edison
“I’m glad coaches have faith in me because I have faith in my team,” Azua said. “We all know we have each other’s back and do what we have to at the end of the day.”
Shidan said of three-year starter Azua: “When we had a three-possession lead, we just wanted to feed him the ball and keep the clock moving. He’s our guy.”
Most Sanger starters are seniors, but Jalen Cropper is not. And the sophomore has set the Sanger community abuzz as the program’s future star, regardless who’s coaching.
Swift afoot and occasionally replacing senior Jacob Tijerina at quarterback, it was Cropper who made a fast Edison defense appear average in speed when he took a snap, faked a handoff and bolted around right end and down the sideline for a 56-yard touchdown and 28-10 lead with 7:43 left in the third quarter.
“He keeps doing it,” Shidan said. “At the start of the season we didn’t know what to expect, but it just keeps happening every game.”
Tigers senior quarterback Jimmy Gray carried 11 times for 158 yards, including gains of 39, 45 and 42 yards.
But No. 13 Edison (2-6, 2-1), which had won two straight after an 0-5 start against a daunting nonleague schedule, was otherwise stuffed by a senior-based Apaches defense.
The Tigers completed only 10 of 28 passes for 62 yards while being outmatched by a Sanger secondary made up of cornerbacks Aaron Mosby and Chris Soria, and safeties Christian Graney and Cropper.
Edison junior wide receiver Harrington, coming off a three-TD game against Memorial and beginning to attract major college attention, was virtually erased by Mosby, catching only two passes for 14 yards.
In addition, linebackers Miguel Garcia, Adrian Valencia, Josh Garza and Josiah Arreola were typically superb.
“Another monstrous game in the middle,” Shidan said of three-year starter Garcia.
One showdown set, two others looming – Clovis West will play Central on Friday at 7 p.m. at Koligian Stadium in a duel of 3-0 TRAC teams.
Then, additional matchups of teams unbeaten in their leagues are expected to follow on Nov. 4 with Tulare and Tulare Western in the East Yosemite League and Liberty-Bakersfield and Bakersfield in the Southwest Yosemite.
Top-ranked Central defeated No. 12 Clovis North 28-7 Thursday for its seventh straight win and sixth against ranked opposition. Then No. 4 Clovis West blasted winless Clovis East 41-6 a day later. Clovis West is a nine-time section champion; Central is seeking its first title.