They gathered coaches, players, media, administrators and others this week in downtown Clovis for a luncheon called “TRAC Football Media Day.”
Organized by Clovis Unified School District, it was of college-class, replete with coaches from each of the Tri-River Athletic Conference’s six schools, players, tri-tip sandos, pilaf, salad and the Central Valley’s best sports emcee, TV anchor George Takata.
Still, at the end of it all, a question loomed: Will the TRAC regain traction – a league that has won 17 of the past 30 section top-division football titles, including 10 all-TRAC finals?
Bakersfield won the D-I championship in 2013, Edison last year.
The TRAC last went three years without winning a section football title when Bakersfield swept from 1988-90.
Not since Bakersfield – the state all-time leader in section titles with 36 – won three consecutively in 1988-90 has the TRAC gone three years in a row without winning a section crown.
Clovis seventh-year coach Rich Hammond, who has reached the semis in four of the past five years, doesn’t guarantee a D-I championship this season from the TRAC, much less his own Bee preseason No. 1 team, but says: “I can’t think of a year where there were so many good players from so many teams in our league.”
Among those he sees at the gathering is Clovis West preseason All-America linebacker Caleb Kelly: “Maybe the No. 1 recruit in the country.”
He takes a look at Clovis East sophomore running back Marcus Washington: “We saw (Clovis North’s Bolu Olorunfunmi, now at UCLA) as a sophomore and I think Marcus blew him out of the water as a freshman.”
I can’t think of a year where there were so many good players from so many teams in our league. Clovis coach Rich Hammond
He considers Buchanan’s Bryson Young and Ben Parker: “As good as defensive ends as you’ll see in high school football.”
He speaks of Clovis North: “They bring back their big guard (6-8, 360-pound Matt Collier) and they have another Haupt (Noah, junior linebacker) in the mix.”
He applauds Central: “They have guys year in and year out that go on and play at the next level, and have success.”
And he considers his own team, returning 18 starters from an 8-5 team, including wide receivers J.J. Wills and Coltin Velasquez, who toyed with 18th-ranked Madera in a scrimmage last week: “Those two guys really give us opportunities for mismatches. Add to them tight end Clayton Alexander, (Tyson) Fraser and (Fabian) Serna in the slot and what we have up front, it’s exciting and something to hang our hat on.”
The Cougars open Friday, Aug. 28, at Paso Robles, which is coming off a 13-2 season and a Southern Section D-III title.
In addition to Clovis, No. 5 Clovis West, No. 11 Buchanan, No. 12 Central and No. 13 Clovis North are ranked in The Bee’s preseason Top 20.
The only exception is Clovis East, which is 14-52 in the past six seasons while losing 28 consecutive TRAC games.
But fourth-year coach Jim O’Brien is not looking in the rear view mirror: “We’re returning 90% of the team from last year, everything we’ve done is building up to a great place right now. We’re very fired up to be where we are and are excited what’s going to happen in the next 10 weeks.”
Regarding Washington, who rushed for 1,800 yards while becoming one of the few freshmen in TRAC history to make all-league, O’Brien said: “He’s a step faster, has added 15 pounds of muscle and we can’t tackle him, so it will be fun to watch him on Friday nights.
“I told our freshman coach at the start of last season to get Marcus ready because I wanted to pull him up in three or four weeks. I think that lasted about 30 minutes into the first day of practice. He’s the best guy in the league but, more than anything, he’s a great person who does anything and everything you want. He’s the first guy out to practice and the last to pick up the bags and clean up afterwards.”
Kelly has a short list
Clovis West’s Kelly, one of five linebackers to make the 13-player CBS MaxPreps Preseason All-American Defensive Team, says he has narrowed his college choices to five. Only he is not announcing them – yet.
“I’ll probably do that later on, maybe in January,” he says, while continuing his stance that he won’t announce his final choice until national signing day Feb. 3. “People say I’m crazy, but I’m putting my team first; I’m not playing for myself first. Now I’m focusing on my senior season and the last time at Clovis West. I want to finish my three years strong.”
Clovis West coach George Petrissans says of Kelly: “Pretty much everybody in the country wants him and the reason why is he’s such a great person. On top of his athletic ability, he’s a guy who comes to school every day, puts his hard hat on, goes to work and leads his brothers in workouts. Everyone knows about his athletic ability, but truly one of the best things about him is his leadership and personality.”
Among no fewer than 29 colleges to offer Caleb Kelly scholarships are Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas and Fresno State.
Among no fewer than 29 colleges to offer scholarships are Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas and Fresno State.
He reportedly included USC, Oregon and Ohio State among his top seven in the summer.
Kelly and Liberty-Bakersfield linebacker Krys Barnes, a UCLA commit, were the only two Central Section players to make Cal-Hi Sports All-State preseason first team.