Sunnyside High School football coach Gordon Wood scheduled two of the toughest opponents in the Central Section for a specific reason.
And unlike a college football team such as Fresno State scheduling a national power, as the Bulldogs did with Nebraska this season, Wood didn’t make dates with section heavyweights Clovis North and Central for a payday.
He did it to get the Wildcats ready for football in late November and into December.
So Sunnyside absorbed lopsided defeats against the Broncos (30-6) and Grizzlies (56-15) in the season’s first two weeks, just as Fresno State did against the Cornhuskers (43-10) in early September, as building blocks to the semifinals of the Central Section Division II playoffs.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats (9-2) play at top-seeded Sanger (11-0) at 7 p.m. Friday for a berth in the final. The winner will host either No. 7 El Diamante or No. 6 and defending champion Ridgeview for the title Dec. 2.
“Part of the expectation was to be in this position,” Wood said. “That’s why I scheduled some of the games early on. We didn’t have a lot of experience, but we had guys who could play. They just needed experience and to understand what it takes to play at that level.”
Since opening the season with back-to-back losses to teams seeded sixth and first in the D-I bracket, Sunnyside has won nine consecutive games. And the Wildcats have done so in impressive fashion, outscoring opponents 421-126 while making a 5-0 run through the North Yosemite League and winning a 66-55 shootout at fourth-seeded Tulare last week in their postseason opener.
Sunnyside has never played in a section final since launching its football program in 2000, according to section historian Bob Barnett. The Wildcats have reached the semifinals twice previously, losing 56-16 to Ridgeview last season and 61-33 to Garces in 2012.
Wood said this year’s team – with no shortage of difference-makers, elite athletes and college prospects – has worked hard to put itself in position to chase a section championship.
“Sometimes our practices are more intense than the games,” Wood said. “They are not going through the motions. And I believe they feel they can taste things. We know this is going to be a huge undertaking, but I think we’ll be up to the challenge.”
Offensively, the Wildcats have a 2,400-yard, 29-touchdown passer in Nate Woods, a 1,000-yard running back in Ricky Valderrama, an explosive group of receivers in Joshua Woods, Tyren McIntyre, Breaun Heights and Jesus Castaneda, and an “All-County” lineman, according to Wood, in 6-foot-1, 295-pound Daniel Facio.
442-212 Sunnyside’s overall points for and points against this season
Defensively, Sunnyside is led by linebacker Marcus Hawkins (described by Wood as the most dominant and physical inside linebacker in the section), corner Deshawn Ruffin, safety Sherwin King, and safety/outside linebacker Isaiah Maxwell.
Sanger enters Friday’s game with a deep and experienced team – having outscored opponents 466-154 – that’s looking to go undefeated in what’s expected to be the last of Chuck Shidan’s 27 seasons as coach.
The Wildcats and Apaches have four common opponents.
Both blew out Clovis East (50-0 Sunnyside; 55-13 Sanger) and Reedley (41-7 Sunnyside; 48-0 Sanger) by similar scores, while they flip-flopped closer scores against two others: Sunnyside edging Memorial 36-35 compared to Sanger’s 56-21 victory, and the Wildcats cruising past Fresno 48-16 while the Apaches won 28-21.
Sanger likes to be the bully, and we’re not going to back down from that.
Sunnyside coach Gordon Wood
“They are obviously a great football team. We’re excited to see what we can do against them,” Wood said. “And we have some pretty good football players, too. I don’t think this will be a game that will come down to execution as much as mentality, sticking your nose in there and how you handle yourself in a physical situation. Sanger likes to be the bully, and we’re not going to back down from that.”