High School Football

Prep football: Hanford defense rises to challenge, stops Madera in D-III final

The 73-35 drubbing, the section record six touchdown receptions by Alec Gamboa and the section No. 2 all-time 555 yards passing and seven touchdowns by Nathaniel Nelson were not mentioned at Hanford High’s football practices this week.

The exploits from Madera’s first-round playoff victory over the Bullpups from a year ago weren’t forgotten, either.

And those unpleasant memories were replaced by a historic one Friday night before an overflow crowd at the Neighbor Bowl.

The top-seeded Bullpups forced turnovers on Madera’s first three possessions and came up with five overall while pulling away for a 35-14 victory over the third-seeded Coyotes for the Central Section Division III football title. It’s the first section championship in the history of a Bullpups program that played its first game in 1899.

“I took it seriously because I’m a (defensive back,)” said Juwuane Hughes, whose interception in the end zone with 6:43 remaining in the game helped seal the outcome. “We really wanted to shut down their passing game, and that’s what we did.

“Our coaches set up a great game plan, like they have all season. This is a special group of guys. We’ve been working for this since the summer. You don’t understand how bad this group wanted this. I’m honored to be on the first team to do this for our school and community.”

Hanford (12-1) was ready for the rematch from the start, with Nathaniel Hunt intercepting a Nelson pass in the end zone to stop Madera’s first possession.

“It was important to get a turnover in the beginning. That pick fired everyone up,” said Hunt, who also came up with a fumble recovery to thwart the Coyotes’ second drive at the Bullpups 24-yard line.

Francisco Ramirez grabbed the second of Hanford’s three interceptions to end a third Madera march into Bullpups territory in the first quarter. Hanford limited Nelson to 123 yards passing on the night.

“The past is the past,” Ramirez said. “One of our biggest keys was we had to start out strong in the first quarter. We had a mentality of just go to the ball.”

The Bullpups took the lead following the interception by Ramirez, getting the first of two touchdown runs by Joseph McDaniel.

After a missed 32-yard field goal attempt by Madera’s Evan Rios, Hanford went 80 yards in 11 plays to take a 14-0 lead on a 1-yard scoring run by Hughes with 3:14 left in the second quarter.

The Coyotes, who were also seeking their first section title for a program that played its first game in 1903, twice made it a one-score games. Madera (9-4) cut it to 14-7 before halftime on a 33-yard run by Jesus Jimenez and to 21-14 when Gamboa scored on a 24-yard pass from Nelson on a fourth-and-15 play with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.

But Hanford was not to be denied, responding on its next possession with a 57-yard pass play from Ryan Johnson to Hughes that set up Johnson’s 1-yard plunge.

Then, five plays following Hughes’ interception in the end zone, McDaniel essentially clinched the victory by going virtually untouched for 34-yard touchdown run that put Madera down two scores with 4:23 left.

“My line made a big, old hole and I just had to stay up,” said McDaniel, who rushed for 139 yards. “I couldn’t go down that open.”

The season likely ends here for the Bullpups, who are eligible to be selected for the CIF State Southern California Division III Bowl but appear to be third in the pecking order to receive one of two berths, which will be announced Sunday.

Cal-Hi Sports had four teams ahead of Hanford in its influential SoCal D-III Bowl rankings: No. 1 El Capitan, No. 2 Newbury Park, No. 3 Paso Robles and No. 4 Rancho Bernardo. Two of the four will be section champions, a requirement to be considered for a state bowl, as El Capitan faces Rancho Bernardo for the San Diego Section D-II title today, and Paso Robles beat Newbury 13-10 for the Southern Section Northern Division crown Friday.

But that was of little matter to an emotional Bullpups coach Josh Young while soaking in the school’s first title.

“This is huge,” said Young, a 1993 Hanford grad. “I can’t count all the days and hours we put in to get here, but this is what you do it all for.”