There was one hint, then another and another.
And then the most profound statement of all that football tradition has been restored at Clovis High -- an epic 32-25 Tri-River Athletic Conference conquest of fourth-ranked Central on Friday night before a disbelieving crowd of 4,000 at Koligian Stadium.
It came a year after the Grizzlies won the matchup 49-14 at Lamonica Stadium in a game without drama.
Friday's couldn't have been scripted.
The No. 8 Cougars (5-2, 2-0), after blowing all of a 25-7 lead in 6 late minutes of the fourth quarter, had Andrew Smith and Yoon Conner connect for a 65-yard touchdown pass with 1:12 remaining, and then linebacker Nate Palomino sack Michael Baker at the final gun as Central failed on three straight attempts from the Clovis 4.
"I'm incredibly proud, we continued to fight back, and when I got here a year ago this wouldn't have happened," said Cougars coach Rich Hammond, who in 2009 inherited a program that had gone 2-19 the previous two seasons. And this is the same school that captured eight Central Section titles from 1970-2002.
Clovis went 3-7 last year, then found life the past three weeks with wins over ranked opposition -- Stockdale (6-0), Sanger (10-7) and Clovis East (14-0).
The Cougars reaffirmed their return to prominence -- or so they thought -- when Smith's 67-yard touchdown pass to Eric Jett gave them a 25-7 lead against Central with 8:10 to go.
But a problem arose -- kicker Anthony Arcelus was unavailable because of an injury for three straight touchdowns, and Clovis missed conversions on all. Then the Grizzlies (5-2, 1-1), given repeated chances on a night they could have been blown out in the first half, roared back.
They tied it on Baker's 17-yard scoring pass to Chinook Anderson, Seth Buchnoff's 26-yard field goal, Carter's 45-yard scoring punt return and Baker's 2-point conversion dive with 2:08 to play.
Three plays later, Conner inexplicably was able to wander 20 yards behind Central's secondary, and Smith, after surveying the field -- left, then right, left, then right -- heaved it deep downfield toward the little guy.
"I was just scared that I might drop it; it was a game-winning situation," said Conner, a 5-7, 165-pound sophomore, who tucked it into his chest, turned and sped the final 30 yards.
Central was fortunate to even be standing at halftime. Clovis led 7-0, but converted zilch in drives that reached the Central 11-, 12- and 32-yard lines.