Regardless what happens to close Central High School’s football season – and most handicappers would expect that to happen at Liberty-Bakersfield in the Central Section Division I quarterfinals – it will forever be defined by 11 vs. 13 a little after 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 17 at Lamonica Stadium.
And that will be immensely unfair.
It was then on that Saturday morning that a Grizzlies Tri-River Athletic Conference game against Clovis extended 36 hours by lightning saw – not live, but only by film review hours later – Central defend the Cougars with 13 players on five consecutive plays. It was an unintentional overload caused by staff miscommunication, Grizzlies interim coach Mark Hetherington said.
A story now told countless times ended with Central winning 21-20 against a 6-0 Clovis team then top-ranked in the Central Section and billed among the state’s best also.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
Forget the fact the Grizzlies, at 1-5, outplayed the Cougars in every phase while mounting a 20-12 lead through 42 of the first 48 minutes on a Thursday night before the game resumed at an odd time while donuts, coffee and juice were consumed in many neighborhood households at Fowler and Barstow avenues.
3 Touchdown passes by Central’s Nick Szpor in 30-19 win at Centennial
All that truly matters today is this: the 4-7 and 10th-seeded Grizzlies remain standing in the Division I playoffs after rolling behind Nick Szpor’s 213 yards and three touchdowns passing for a 30-19 win Friday night at No. 7 Centennial, earning a quarterfinal date at No. 2 Liberty-Bakersfield (6-3) next Friday.
Junior Nate Howard caught six passes for 114 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown for a 17-7 lead two plays after Central converted a fourth and three on a fake punt in the second quarter when Adrian Lopez took a direct snap, charged up the middle, was met at the line of scrimmage and drove the pack forward in what would be a five-yard gain.
That typified the boldness of the Grizzlies under Hetherington in a season forged without coach Justin Garza in his ongoing battle with cancer.
And who to doubt Central all along?
In addition to the Clovis conquest, the Grizzlies have stood toe-to-toe in defeat with Bullard (21-17), Buchanan (17-13) and Clovis North (23-20) – teams alive and seeded among the top five in D-I.
It’s been a rough season, yet a good season, and I’m really proud of what Mark has done, keeping the boys focused and rallying them forward. I’ve been in the district 21 years, and this is very exciting to see.
Central Unified School District athletic director Eliseo Cuellar on Grizzlies interim coach Mark Hetherington
“It’s been a rough season, yet a good season, and I’m really proud of what Mark has done, keeping the boys focused and rallying them forward,” says Central Unified School District athletic director Eliseo Cuellar. “I’ve been in the district 21 years, and this is very exciting to see.”
Now for a return trip to Kern County to play Liberty-Bakersfield in a date that has a twist of irony.
A Liberty-Central game at Koligian Stadium in September was canceled because of poor air quality. Had it been played, and Liberty won, the Patriots would have ultimately earned the D-I top seed over Clovis because of a tiebreaker criteria that calls for record against common opponents.
As it turned out, that criteria didn’t apply, but the next one did – rankings by MaxPreps.com and CalPreps.com, whch use the same computer formula. And the Cougars were given the edge.
Liberty’s nonleague schedule did include a 27-6 throttling of Buchanan at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Patriots then went 5-0 in the Southwest Yosemite League behind Jordan Love, an electrifying quarterback who returned from a 10-3 team that lost 21-14 in the final minutes to Edison for the D-I title.
“It’s been a year of adversity, obviously,” Hetherington says. “But the kids have persevered, are playing loose and expect good things to happen. The task ahead is a great one, but we feel prepared to compete because of the schedule we’ve played.”
The Grizzlies will counter Love with an accomplished quarterback of their own in Szpor, who completed 17 of 28 passes against Centennial.
“Nick has an innate ability to play at his best when the best is needed,” says Hetherington, a quarterback for a section championship team at Buchanan in 2000.
Jeanniton emerges for Edison – Leevel Tatum and Alim Shabazz have been highly advertised for two years on Edison’s defensive line, but a star has joined them in Kevin Jeanniton.
“He’s definitely a college recruitable guy right now,” Tigers coach Matt Johnson said of the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior who was dominant coming off the edge in his eighth-seeded team’s 16-6 win over No. 9 Bakersfield at Sunnyside Stadium. “He’s solid and an outstanding student.”
A quarterfinal showdown at top-seeded Clovis (9-1) promises to be emotional for Jeanniton, who was part of the Cougars’ program the past two seasons. He said he didn’t play last year because of an injury after playing junior varsity as a sophomore.
Edison is only 5-6 but still reigns as the defending D-I champion. And don’t discount a repeat, Jeanniton says: “We’re going to beat Clovis and go all the way. We’ll push until we get that Valley ring. We have the potential, and our confidence level is way high.”
In a 2014 D-I semifinal at Sunnyside Stadium, the Tigers scored all of their points in the final seven minutes to rally past Clovis 21-14. They then beat Liberty-Bakersfield by the same score for the title.
Rematches are set in Friday’s remaining D-I quarters.
Fourth-seeded Buchanan (7-3) and No. 5 Clovis North (6-4) return to Veterans Memorial Stadium two weeks after the Bears won 31-28 to tie Clovis for the TRAC championship. And No. 6 Clovis West (6-4) plays No. 3 Bullard (8-2) at McLane two months after the Knights winged the Golden Eagles 42-23.
D-II biggies await – The big four – No. 1 Ridgeview (10-0), No. 2 Lemoore (8-2), No. 3 Sanger (9-1) and No. 4 Tulare (9-1) – are ready to fire in a D-II postseason anticipated since August because of its quality.
Intrigue beckons particularly at Mathias Stadium, where Tulare will oppose No. 5 Sunnyside (7-3) of the North Yosemite League.
That’s partly because Sunnyside has wins over D-I opposition in Clovis East (61-42) and Stockdale (27-21) in addition to a loss to D-III No. 2 seed Memorial (28-20).
But, mostly, the storyline centers around Tulare’s career 7,311-yard rusher Romello Harris, who hasn’t played running back since injuring a knee Oct. 23 in a 51-27 win at Porterville.
He didn’t play in a 55-41 victory over Mission Oak before playing slot receiver only – catching but one pass for four yards – in a 20-17 loss to Tulare Western for the East Yosemite League title two weeks ago. The Redskins had a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Tulare coach Darren Bennett says Harris will likely have an MRI on Monday or Tuesday.
“If it’s an ACL, we’re not going to let him play because he’s got such a bright future and we don’t want to harm his chances of playing in college,” Bennett said. “If it’s a meniscus tear, I think he’ll be good to go.”
Once a virtual lock to pass former Mendota star Edgar Segura (8,029) as the section’s career leading rusher, Harris has given way at running back to sophomore Kazmeir Allen, the team’s fastest player.
Harris has several scholarship offers, but Bennett says chances are good he’ll land at Washington State, where he’ll have an opportunity to start as a freshman.
Other D-II quarters will send No. 9 West (6-5) to Ridgeview, No. 2 Garces (2-8) to Sanger and No. 7 El Diamante (5-5) to Lemoore in a rematch of a West Yosemite League game won 35-0 by the Tigers two weeks ago.