It’s the second week of December, temperatures plunging into the 30s in many areas of the state and 21 high school football teams having played as many as 14 games.
Yet it’s a season anew.
“Obviously, a lot of this I haven’t done,” Hanford coach Josh Young says. “A lot of people haven’t done it.”
Actually, as a state, it’s unprecedented.
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Never have 48 prep football teams played state regionals on one weekend in December, as will happen Friday and Saturday.
48 Unprecedented number of prep football teams in the state playing regionals this weekend
Never has the CIF provided such a broad postseason platform two weeks before Christmas.
And, consequently, never – not remotely close – have 50 Hanford football players had the opportunity to pack two charter buses in the gym parking lot at Grangeville and Kensington to play a regional game in Gold Country 150 miles to the north.
But that will unfold at noon Friday, those players, their red and black gear, coaches, cheerleaders, students and fans – seven buses in all – rolling up Highway 43 to the 99, 59, 108 and 49, into Tuolumne County and Sonora, with all its historic charm, remnants of the town’s Mexican colonial past and a main street anchored with gold rush architecture.
And, most of all, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, the Bullpups will match 12-1 records with the Wildcats from the Sac-Joaquin Section who play in a stadium unlike any other, one with a 5,000-seat concrete structure carved into a mountainside. And that’s where all the fans sit. Same side. The west side.
Yes, we’re a little different here.
Sonora coach Bryan Craig, referring to the Wildcats’ unique football stadium in the Gold Country
“Yes, we’re a little different here,” Sonora coach Bryan Craig says.
While the three-hour, winding bus ride into the 1,800-foot-elevation foothills will be a definite disadvantage for Hanford, the quicker Bullpups should benefit from the field’s synthetic surface, which offers a fast track and will be largely unaffected by rain forecasted in Sonora on Thursday and Friday right up to kickoff. The game-time temperature is expected to be 38.
38 Forecasted temperature at kickoff for Hanford’s game at Sonora
“They’re fast all over the place,” Craig says. “That definitely will be a challenge for us, to contain their speed.”
Hanford, placed in Northern California’s Division IV-AA by a CIF committee, is one of six Central Section teams still standing.
Among the others, Immanuel (10-2) will play Bradshaw Christian-Sacramento (12-1) Friday at Reedley High in North Division V-AA, and Chowchilla (11-2) will play at home against Fairfax-Los Angeles (8-6) Saturday in South Division IV-A. Those also will be 7:30 p.m. kickoffs.
In addition, Kern County will have three representatives: Ridgeview (13-0) playing at home Saturday against Narbonne-Harbor City (12-2) in South Division I-A, Liberty-Bakersfield (9-3) playing at home Friday against Del Oro-Loomis (8-6) in North Division II-AA and Kennedy-Delano (10-3) opposing Saddleback Valley Christian-San Juan Capistrano (14-0) in South Division V-A Saturday at Laguna Hills High.
Should Hanford and Chowchilla win, they will remain home for state championships next week. Immanuel, with a win, will travel to Southern California.
Two QBs, two styles, two success stories – Ryan Johnson and Sam Page have little in common in the offenses they’re asked to operate, but the success of Hanford and Sonora begins with them.
Johnson, a three-year starter for the Bullpups and still only a junior running a spread attack, was progressively spectacular in section D-III playoff wins over Kingsburg (42-7), Golden Valley (42-14) and Memorial (42-28).
“He’s been amazing lately,” Young says of the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder. “He’s poised in the pocket, his footwork is better, he’s had great reads, and he’s throwing tremendously. He’s put it all together.”
Johnson has passed for 2,573 yards and a school-record 29 touchdowns, and rushed for 658 yards and another nine scores. Running back Joe McDaniel has also had a school-record-breaking season of 1,827 yards and has scored 21 TDs.
Johnson and teammates Cole Taber, Jonathan Stevens and Juwuane Hughes – the latter, critical to the team’s success as a wide receiver/safety – are running out of fingers to accommodate section championship rings, each having won four together (two football, two basketball).
Johnson and Page are 24-2 and 23-3, respectively, the past two seasons.
Page again has the Wildcats’ triple-option in top form a year after they closed an 11-2 season with a 42-35 loss to Central Catholic-Modesto in the Sac-Joaquin Section D-IV title game. Central Catholic went on to win the Small Schools state championship.
This season, coming off a 42-30 conquest of Bear River-Grass Valley for the SJS D-V crown, Sonora has five players with 600 or more rushing yards and four with eight or more touchdowns, including Page.
Young is most concerned with the Wildcats’ fullback dive play – often a starting point in the triple option. And Sonora can pound and ground that way with Bradley Canepa (5-11, 230) and Brett McCutchen (5-11, 220).
“If we get them going laterally to the sideline, it bodes well for us because of our team speed,” Young says. “But the big fullbacks up the middle scare us. What Sonora does really good is force you into situations to make one-on-one tackles. I’m not overly confident, but I’ve seen our guys in that situation get it done.”
Running wild – It shouldn’t take long to complete the Fairfax-Chowchilla game, given that nearly 80 percent of the teams’ combined offense has come via rushing, meaning fewer clock stops.
“It’s pretty insane here right now,” Redskins coach Alex Pittz says of the campus and community buzz for a game that will match an army of his rushers in an unusual shotgun double wing attack against Lions senior Ramses Hernandez.
33 Rushing touchdowns by Fairfax-Los Angeles’ Ramses Hernandez
“He’s the one who sticks out immediately,” Pittz says of Hernandez, who will wear jersey No. 23 while trucking in 2,826 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns. “He does not go down on first contact and actually seeks contact out.”
Further, Hernandez has two buildings to run behind on the right side of his line in guard Maurice Gardin (6-4, 375) and tackle Giomar Aguilar (6-3, 260).
Chowchilla will counter with an offensive look virtually unseen in the Los Angeles City Section, which fancies the spread.
It features senior Anthony Stewart (1,602 rushing yards, 19 TDs), who has answered with an even better season after being named co-North Sequoia League MVP as a junior. He’s complemented well by Alex Gutierrez (763-12) and Danny Chavez (498-8).
Defensively, Redskins senior nose guard Gary Nieuwkoop will get after Hernandez.
“He’s the anchor of our defense,” Pittz says. “He’s been almost unblockable in the playoffs.”
Immanuel to face dominant foe – Competition has been suspect for Bradshaw Christian, but there’s no denying The Pride’s numbers, which are simply gaudy.
Bradshaw Christian has won by an average margin of 30.5 points, has scored 50 or more points five times, is averaging 359.4 rushing yards a game and has two 1,000-yard rushers and a third who’s close.
For all that, Cal-Hi Sports has Immanuel and The Pride ranked Nos. 2-3 behind Notre Dame-Riverside (14-0) in the state’s D-V.
Immanuel inside linebackers Andrue Lackey and Cody King, who leads the section with 15 tackles a game, will dive into the teeth of Bradshaw Christian’s double wing.
Coach Matt Armstrong says his Eagles don’t appear to be content after defeating Mendota 35-20 for the section D-V title as Caleb Paulson passed for 172 yards and two touchdowns and senior Ryan Case delivered a career night by rushing for 115 yards, catching four passes for 85 yards, scoring three touchdowns and making a game-sealing interception in the final minutes.
“The players have been pretty mission oriented all year,” Armstrong says. “They’re pretty focused and seem to want to spend another week together.”