The 10th of the Central Section’s 11-week football regular season produced, among many, the following storylines:
▪ One of the nation’s most coveted players pledged allegiance to a Pac-12 school, then dropped a bombshell on the section’s hottest team.
▪ Four teams gave themselves a shot at regular-season perfection by improving to 9-0.
▪ League championship races boiled down to two winner-take-all games next week, and showdowns of first- and second-place teams in seven others.
Let’s start with Jaylen Johnson and The Bee’s section top-ranked Central.
On a virtual Senior Night of perfection, the Grizzlies saw the All-America cornerback commit to Utah before the game, then score on a reception and play superb defense, as they throttled No. 3 Clovis West 49-28.
It clinched no worse than a Tri-River Conference title tie while virtually ensuring a Division I top seed for Central (8-1, 4-0 CMAC), which will close the regular season Thursday against winless Clovis East at Lamonica Stadium.
But the Grizzlies – who have beaten seven ranked teams in an eight-game winning streak – will play the rest of the season without Johnson, who said after the game he’ll have surgery next week to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder that he hurt in the summer and has been playing with all along.
“It was definitely a timing thing,” said the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder, ranked sixth among national cornerbacks by Rivals.com. “Recovery time is four to six months, so I didn’t want to cut it too close. I want to get in some training time before I leave, wherever I go.”
As part of Central’s introduction of seniors and their parents on the field before the game, Johnson made his announcement by having Carmella and John Johnson, brother Johnny and godparents Bobby Gilbert and James Fuller display placards – 1-U-T-A-H. Johnson wears jersey No. 1.
He said he has made official recruiting visits to Nebraska and Utah and will still take others to USC, Arizona State and Oklahoma.
The only way I’ll de-commit is if God tells me to. Until then, I’m full Utah. But I’m still exploring.
Central star defensive back Jaylen Johnson, who announced his verbal commitment to Utah before the top-ranked Grizzlies’ 49-21 victory over No. 3 Clovis West
“The only way I’ll de-commit is if God tells me to,” he said. “Until then, I’m full Utah. But I’m still exploring.”
He said USC had been his choice until visiting Utah four weeks ago.
He had planned to announce his choice Feb. 1, the first day of the signing period. But he moved the call up because of the surgery.
Central sophomore Trent Tompkins passed for 232 yards and three touchdowns, increasing his season total to 26 against only four interceptions, and Diotry Brewer rushed for 127 yards.
Linemen Samuel Satele and Brandon Ballard, in the play of the night, stopped Clovis West quarterback Adrian Martinez for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the Grizzlies 23 late in the second quarter and the Golden Eagles leading 14-10.
Martinez rushed for 154 yards and two TDs and passed for 224 yards and two more scores for Clovis West (6-3, 3-1).
Chasing perfection – Strathmore needed a late touchdown, on fourth down no less, to remain one of the section’s final four undefeated teams.
Sanger, Selma and Mendota also improved to 9-0, but it was the Spartans who faced the toughest test in the second-to-last game of the regular season.
Nick Salas’ 5-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal with roughly 5 minutes remaining lifted Strathmore over Granite Hills 12-11 to clinch at least a share of the East Sequoia League championship.
The Spartans – who played without injured 1,079-yard, 21-touchdown running back Joseph Garcia – needed Noah Alcantar’s interception in the last 30 seconds to close out a Grizzlies team that entered 2-6 overall and 0-3 in the ESL.
Since launching its football program in 1920, Strathmore’s only 10-0 regular season came in 1999.
“We’ve been preaching at them the whole year to play one game at a time, one situation at a time,” Spartans coach Jeromy Blackwell said. “We’re trying to keep their heads clear and not worry about stuff like that. That’s stuff you celebrate at the end of the season.”
The next obstacle for the Spartans (4-0 in league) is neighboring Lindsay (6-3, 3-1), with the 96-year rivals set to meet Nov. 4. The ESL title will be on the line in a game expected to draw upward of 4,000 fans to Strathmore.
Garcia, who injured his shoulder Oct. 21 against Corcoran, is expected to play as Strathmore, top-ranked in Division VI by The Bee, looks to lock up a No. 1 playoff seed. Postseason pairings for the section’s six divisions will be announced Nov. 5.
▪ Fifth-ranked Sanger remained undefeated with a 53-14 victory over Madera that featured a 12-yard interception return, 46-yard reception and 17-yard run for touchdowns by Arron Mosby as the Apaches clinched at least a tie for the County/Metro Athletic Conference title.
Sanger (4-0 in the conference) can win the CMAC outright with a victory at Memorial next week.
▪ No. 16 Selma wrapped up at least a share of its first league title in 19 seasons with a 47-14 win against Exeter that featured 291 yards passing and four touchdowns from Junior Ramirez.
The Bears (4-0 in league) play at rival Kingsburg (7-2, 3-1) on Nov. 4 with a chance to secure the CSL title outright and extend their first perfect season since going 13-0 and winning the Sequoia Division championship in 1980.
“Being 9-0, the big thing about that is it sets us up for our big goals at the end of the season we’re hoping to achieve,” said Selma coach Matt Logue, whose team is top-ranked in D-IV by The Bee.
▪ Junior Cardenas’ 20-yard touchdown pass to Fabian Jasso with 7 minutes left helped Mendota pull away for a 14-6 win over Coalinga that clinched at least a share of a fourth West Sierra League title in the past six seasons for the Aztecs.
Mendota also received a 6-yard touchdown run from Erick Segura in the first quarter.
The Aztecs (4-0 in league) can win the league crown outright with a victory Nov. 3 at Tranquillity.
League title showdowns – Bob Mathias Stadium is expected to be sold out Nov. 3 when city rivals Tulare and Tulare Western clash in the 52nd annual Bell Game, one of two winner-take-all match-ups for league titles around the section.
No. 20 Tulare (8-1 overall) moved to 4-0 in the East Yosemite League with a 56-18 victory over Mission Oak that featured three touchdowns apiece from the dynamic duo of receiver Emoryie Edwards and running back Kazmeir Allen.
Tulare Western (7-2 overall) got to 4-0 in the EYL by riding 221 yards passing and three touchdowns from Andre Aguilar to a 48-7 win against Monache.
It’s taking a rivalry that in and of itself is a big deal, and taking the stakes up a notch.
Tulare coach Darren Bennett on the 52nd annual Bell Game, which pits his Tribe against city rival Tulare Western with the outright East Yosemite League title on the line.
“It’s taking a rivalry that in and of itself is a big deal and taking the stakes up a notch,” Tulare coach Darren Bennett said. “It’s going to decide who gets the Bell, the city title, the league championship and, probably, who gets a top one to three (playoff) seed, I’d think.
“If Tulare Western wins, they have a good argument to be No. 1 (in D-III.) I don’t think that can happen with us, Sanger will probably get the No. 1 (in D-II), but the game will have a huge impact on where we are seeded. It makes for an exciting game with lots of intensity.”
Tulare has won six straight since a 46-35 loss to No. 17 Redwood on Sept. 9.
Bennett said his Tribe were not at their best against Mission Oak despite 255 yards passing by Nathan Lamb with touchdowns of 15, 10 and 21 yards going to Edwards, who caught 12 passes for 176 yards, and Allen’s 188 yards rushing punctuated by scoring runs of 21, 10 and 76 yards.
“I think we had a little looking past Mission Oak to the Bell Game, and I can understand that,” Bennett said. “But we are going to have to play better this week than we did last week if we want to win. Tulare Western has won a lot of games for a very good reason. They have a very talented team.”
The Tribe and Mustangs have met in regular-season finales with unbeaten league records three times since 2000, according to section historian Bob Barnett. Tulare won 42-7 in 2000 and Tulare Western 28-14 in 2004 and 20-17 in 2015.
Bakersfield (7-2, 4-0) hosts Liberty-Bakersfield (7-2, 4-0) in a Southwest Yosemite League game at West High in the other section showdown between league unbeatens.
There will be seven other games around the section pitting first- and second-place teams, including Liberty-Madera Ranchos (6-3, 3-0) at Chowchilla (7-1, 2-1) in the North Sequoia League, Caruthers (7-2, 2-1) at Fowler (5-4, 3-0) in the West Sequoia, Farmersville (3-6, 3-0) at McFarland (3-6, 2-1) in the East Sierra and Ridgeview (4-5, 3-1) at Independence (5-4, 4-0) in the South Yosemite.