High School Football

Prep football: Central Section championship game previews

Three months ago, Edison plunged into a 14-0 hole against Bakersfield High, crawled out miraculously and won 15-14 on an improbable field goal with 15 seconds remaining in a long-trumpeted nonleague game.

A week ago, another 14-0 deficit required a cast of Edison players in Oscar-worthy dramatic performances for a 21-14 denial of Clovis in the semifinals of the Central Section Division I playoffs at Sunnyside Stadium. (Correction: The original version of this story said both games were played at Sunnyside; the Edison-Bakersfield game as played at Ratcliffe Stadium.)

The top-seeded Edison Tigers (11-1) will return to Sunnyside on Friday night to play No. 2 Liberty-Bakersfield (10-2) for the D-I title at 7 p.m.

And what will their cheerleaders be waving as the players run onto a field groomed meticulously this season by the Fresno Unified School District — a red flag or a banner of fortitude?

How to interpret those escapes against Bakersfield, which they had never beaten, and Clovis, which thoroughly outplayed them for 37 of the game’s 48 minutes?

Edison offensive tackle/linebacker Vance Sams, arguably the most valuable player in the section, gleans positives from the trials: “It helps. It builds us stronger as a team and, mentally, it builds you up, knowing that being down in those situations, you play hard and anything can happen.”

History hangs in the balance for the Tigers.

A win would represent their first section large-schools championship since 1975.

Further, a win would virtually guarantee them a ticket to the Southern California Regional Championship Bowl Game next Friday, likely at Oceanside of the San Diego Section.

Oceanside (12-0), ranked fifth in the state overall by Cal-Hi Sports, will play No. 21 Helix-La Mesa (10-2) on Saturday night for the San Diego Section Open Division title.

The Oceanside-Helix and Edison-Liberty winners are expected to be matched in the SoCal D-I bowl when bids are awarded Sunday by a state CIF selection committee.

Edison, ranked 13th in California by Cal-Hi, hasn’t played in a state bowl since the postseason games were introduced in 2006. In fact, only Bakersfield (2013 D-I winner), Bakersfield Christian (2013 D-IV loser) and Washington (2011 D-III winner) from the Central Section have been to a state final in a subjective selection process decided by the state’s 10 section commissioners.

But a state bowl is far from the buzz on the west side of Fresno.

Those fans are expected to arrive by the thousands at Sunnyside Stadium simply to see the Tigers duel with Liberty-Bakersfield, the Southwest Yosemite League’s 5-0 champion.

In 21-14 (league) and 41-10 (D-I semis) wins over Bakersfield, the Patriots became the only team in the Drillers’ 111-year history to beat them twice in one season.

“Best team we’ve faced all year, no doubt about it,” Edison coach Matt Johnson says. “The two best teams in the Valley are definitely in this game.”


No. 2 Liberty-Bakersfield (10-2) vs. No. 1 Edison (11-1)

• How they got here: Patriots won the Southwest Yosemite League at 5-0 before defeating seventh-seeded Clovis West 21-6 and No. 3 Bakersfield in the playoffs; Tigers shared the County/Metro Athletic Conference with Sanger at 4-1 before defeating No. 9 Centennial 42-0 and No. 5 Clovis 21-14.

• Section titles: Liberty (1) 2001 (D-III); Edison (5) 1946, 1969 (Yosemite Division), 1975 (Yosemite Division), 2002 (D-II), 2009 (D-II).

• Common opponents: Liberty defeated Buchanan 48-20, d. Bakersfield 21-14 and 41-10, and d. Clovis West 21-6; Edison d. Buchanan 13-7, d. Bakersfield 15-14 and d. Clovis West 42-12.

• The book on Liberty: Interestingly, the Patriots have lost to lower-division teams — though state-ranked — in D-II Ridgeview (11-1), which is playing for a Central Section title, and D-III Arroyo Grande (10-3), which has been eliminated in the Southern Section playoffs. But Liberty matches up with the best in a blend of muscle and skill, featuring left offensive tackle Ruben Guerra (6-5, 290), Arizona-commit running back Anthony Mariscal (1,183 yards, 17 touchdowns., 8.2 yards per carry), wide receiver Braylin Scott (9 TDs, 25 yards per reception) and linebacker Krys Barnes. Scott will be defended by Tyler Horton in the duel of the night.

• The book on Edison: The offense has been known to scuttle (see Buchanan, Bakersfield, Sanger and Clovis games) before turning on the electricity behind quarterback Hunter Swearingen, running back Khai Williams and receivers A.J. Greeley and Kamron Lewis. The defense has been known to rescue (see past eight games without giving up more than 14 points). The Tigers, equipped with maybe their best defense in program history, commands respect at all three levels, featuring linemen Anthony Shepard and Leevel Tatum, linebackers Vance Sams and Xavier Hamilton and deep backs Greeley, Horton and Juwan Murphy. But for the X factor — kicker Bill Xiong. He’s been a hero (beat Bakersfield and Clovis North). He’s been a mystery. And what now?

• He said it: “We talk about (the program’s first section large schools title since 1975) all the time; Coach Matty J (Matt Johnson) brings it up every game. We’re trying not to let it distract us from doing what we’re supposed to do. We want to think it gives us confidence to make history happen again.” — Sams


No. 3 Dinuba (11-1) vs. No. 1 Ridgeview (11-1)

• How they got here: Emperors won the Central Sequoia League (4-0), d. No. 11 Kingsburg (34-13), d. No. 2 Lemoore (30-22); Wolf Pack won the South Yosemite League (5-0), d. No. 8 Tulare (55-27), d. No. 4 Sanger (30-23)

• Section titles: Dinuba (3) 1969 (Sierra Division), 2009 (D-III), 2013 (D-III); Ridgeview (1) 2012 (D-III)

• Common opponents: Dinuba d. Tulare 26-14; Ridgeview d. Tulare 55-27

• The book on Dinuba: Bumped up a division after placing first and second in D-III the past two sesons, the Emperors hit one speed bump (30-7 loss to eventual D-III finalist Hanford on Sept. 12) while extending the best four-year run among 100 schools in the section (44-7, three straight section finals). Junior Isaac Leppke has been progressed impressively while stepping into the shoes of now-Oregon State QB Marcus McMaryion, and four-year starting RB Michael Wright (1,659 yards, 21 TDs) continues to plow defenses geared to stop him. Defensively, lineman Dawuud Davis and Nick Villalobos, LB Chandler Cocklin and CB Hunter Garrison have played on a level worthy of the section’s finest. Dinuba 13-year coach Kevin Scharton endorses Davis as the premier defensive lineman in the section in addition to saying Cocklin — who returned to Dinuba after spending three years in Iowa — is the best linebacker he’s coached.

• The book on Ridgeview: It would be easy to say it begins and ends with RB Sheldon Croney, a Garces transfer, who has rushed for 1,978 yards and 27 TDs. The senior’s 156 rushing yards included TDs of 80 and 42 yards in the semifinal win over Sanger, which defeated D-I top seed Edison 15-14 in CMAC play. But defense can’t be overlooked at Ridgeview — the South Yosemite League 5-0 champion — which stoned Tulare running back Romello Harris to the tune of 44 yards on 18 carries in the quarters. He finished with 2,561 yards and 31 TDs for the season.

• He said it: “I’m very blessed. The Dinuba kids’ work ethic is second to none, that’s why we’re winning.” — Scharton


No. 3 Madera (9-3) vs. No. 1 Hanford (11-1)

• How they got here: Coyotes tied for fourth in the County/Metro Athletic Conference (2-3), d. No. 6 South 58-26, d. No. 2 Mission Oak 31-28 (2 OT); Bullpups placed second in the West Yosemite League (5-1), d. No. 9 Fresno (41-16), d. No. 5 Bakersfield Christian (40-21)

• Section titles: Hanford (0), Madera (0)

• Common opponents: None

• The book on Madera: The Coyotes return to Neighbor Bowl with the key personnel that throttled Hanford 73-35 in last year’s D-III first round. That includes QB Nate Nelson, who passed for 555 yards and seven TDs in the game — both totals No. 2 all-time in the section — and has become only the seventh player in section annals to pass for more than 7,000 yards in a career, according to historian Bob Barnett. Nelson, a senior, has 7,007 and 73 TDs. Alec Gamboa, a senior wing in the team’s wing-T pistol, also returns after catching 13 passes for 360 yards and a section-record six TDs against Hanford. Jesus Jimenez (1,265 yards rushing, 16 TDs) missed the team’s consecutive CMAC losses to Memorial, Sanger and Edison with a hamstring pull. Gamboa (concussion) was also out against Sanger and Edison, and most of the Memorial game. Kris Bueno (50 receptions, 1,014 yards, 12 TDs) is a 6-4 junior and major college prospect. Evan Rios, in his first season of football, has kicked 12 field goals, including a couple of game-winners against Bullard and Mission Oak.

• The book on Hanford: The Bullpups appear primed for a shootout, having scored on their first four possessions against Bakersfield Christian in a game that saw sophomore Ryan Johnson complete his first 11 passes in a 13-of-14, 175-yard night. He’s the younger brother of Brooke Johnson, The Bee’s 2014 co-Player of the Year in basketball and one of the most accomplished players in section history. Ryan Johnson has rushed for 13 TDs and junior Joseph McDaniel 20 in a ground game averaging 235 yards. It’s been a long title wait for both Hanford, which played its first game in 1899, and Madera (1903), Barnett says.

• He said it: “They may have all the athletes and the speed, but we’re going to turn this thing into a physical dogfight, CMAC style. They didn’t play a CMAC schedule and that’s what we’re going to hang our hat on.” — Madera coach Bonner Cunnings


No. 2 Central Valley Christian (11-1) vs. No. 1 Liberty-Madera Ranchos (12-0)

• How they got here: Cavaliers placed second in the Central Sequoia League (3-1), d. No. 10 Madera South (50-6), d. No. 3 Chavez (38-35); Hawks won the North Sequoia League (5-0), d. Kerman 41-21, d. Golden West 30-14

• Section titles: CVC (4), 1999 (D-V), 2003 (D-V), 2004 (D-V), 2005 (D-V); Liberty (2) 2012 (D-V), 2013 (D-V)

• Common opponents: CVC d. Chowchilla 44-6, d. Fowler 56-3, d. Madera South 50-6; Liberty d. Chowchilla 42-18, d. Fowler 35-0, d. Madera South 38-7

• The book on CVC: An efficient, bullish Cavaliers offense prefers to ground and pound in a double tight-end alignment behind running backs Macintyre Garbani (1,311 yards, 21 TDs) and Alex te Velde (749-12). But they also pick their spots strategically through the air; as evidence, see Brady Vander Dussen’s 245 yards passing and three scores on only seven completions in the semis against Chavez. CVC, building an “ever-strengthening” case for a SoCal Regional D-IV Bowl bid, according to Cal-Hi Sports, has scored 40 or more points 10 times.

• The book on Liberty: Coming off consecutive D-V titles, the Hawks’ three-year record of 36-2 is tops in the section. And the well evidently isn’t going dry, given a 10-0 JV team and eighth-grade outfit that reached the second round of its playoffs. Providing the varsity foundation for three to four seasons have been quarterback Zach Richey, RB/DB Wade Wallace, WR/DB Logan Pierce and two-way lineman Trevor Stephens. Key two-year starters have been LB Luke Cullins, RB/DE Richie Brandt, SS Chad Wallace, FB/LB Kendall Malone and linemen C.J. Cambra, Austin Del Toro and Hunter O’Brion. And junior ILB Hunter Gray came up from the JV to share the team tackles lead with Cambra at 87. The Hawks would be in the state D-IV bowl conversation, also, except their enrollment of 580 is just over the maximum of 500 allowed for participation in the division.

• He said it: “I figured CVC would be there in the end; I was more worried about us. I figured we had a good chance being at least in the final four, but going up a division and playing against schools two and three times our size, you’re never sure what to expect. The unknown made me a little nervous.” — Liberty-Madera Ranchos coach Mike Nolte.


No. 8 Corcoran (10-3) vs. No. 3 Immanuel (9-3)

• How they got here: Panthers won the East Sequoia League (4-1), d. No. 1 Farmersville (26-14), No. 4 Mendota (27-13); Eagles (independent regular season) in the playoffs have d. No. 6 Caruthers 10-7, No. 7 Fowler 29-14

• Section titles: Corcoran (3) 1989 (Sequoia Division), 1995 (Sequoia Division), 2009 (D-V); Immanuel (8) 1973 (Sierra Division), 1975 (Sierra Division), 1983 (Sierra Division), 1993 (Sierra Division), 1996 (Sierra Division), 2000 (D-V), 2002 (D-V), 2005 (D-IV)

• Common opponents: Immanuel d. Lindsay 13-12; Corcoran d. Lindsay 27-14

• The book on Corcoran: In arguably the most impressive coaching call this season in the section, Panthers eight-year boss Rich Lane — recognizing his personnnel, particularly in the offensive line — shelved his traditional power option game in favor of a pass-oriented spread. And this has resulted in a school-record passing performance by three-year starter Nico Portillo (3,358 yards, 29 TDs, 64.3%). His primary targets have been Legary Austin (73 catches, 1,109 yards, 7 TDs) and Dillon Fugate (55-799-8). Senior RB/DT Trent Olmos has been dominant after missing two seasons after shoulder surgery for Corcoran, the lowest seed standing in the section.

• The book on Immanuel: Despite losing a 2,663-yard, 32-TD running back to graduation in Khalil Montgomery, the Eagles actually have improved considerably while turning this time to senior RB Robert Grier (1,678-14), who rushed for 143 yards against Fowler. “He can get back there and boogie,” Lane says. “They’re a good, physical team with a lot of good athletes on the defensive line.”

• He said it: “He’s got a special knack of throwing the ball to a spot where the receiver can make a play — it’s called accuracy. We saw this his sophomore year and we cultivated and cultivated it. And as he grew, his decision-making became so much wider.” — Lane on Portillo.