There’s something to be said about routinely standing on the threshold of the Central Section Division I championship game in football.
But oh for the pain of not getting there.
And, while this has occurred four times in the past five seasons for Clovis High, never had it hurt more than last year, when the Cougars failed to secure a 14-0 lead in the final 7 minutes against top-seeded Edison in a semifinal at Sunnyside Stadium, losing 21-14 to the eventual champion.
“I’m still not over it, tell you the truth,” Clovis senior wide receiver J.J. Wills says after a morning practice this week — 250 days later. “We were playing well, hustling, making plays, stopping them on defense. Everybody’s ecstatic, on the sideline, on the field. I thought, ‘Hey, this is our game.’”
The Cougars figure to have another chance.
“Winning the Valley and competing in the state,” says Wills, son of former Hanford and UCLA star running back Shawn Wills, “that’s our expectations.”
18 Returning starters from Clovis’ 8-5 team in 2014
Combining a deep pool of size and skill among 18 returning starters, Clovis of the Tri-River Athletic Conference is No. 1 in The Bee’s preseason rankings.
“Fine,” seven-year coach Rich Hammond says with a smile, “but I’d rather be there at the end of the season. And this probably is our most talented and experienced group.”
The same, perhaps, also could be said for Liberty-Bakersfield, which received strong No. 1 consideration. The Patriots return quarterback Jordan Love (Utah State commit), linebacker Krys Barnes (UCLA) and a load of additional accomplished players from a 10-3 team that was the runner-up to Edison.
Clovis has gone 44-18 with two TRAC titles and two runner-up finishes under Hammond in the past five years after going 3-7 in his Cougars debut in 2009. And even that represented progress after the eight-time section champs had plunged to 2-19 the previous two seasons. They last won the title in 2002.
Only Bakersfield (54-11) and Edison (44-17) have as many or more wins in the five-year stretch among section programs who have played D-I all along.
Did someone say Edison?
“I went into a crisis mode and tried to get the kids moving in a positive direction because I know how hard it was,” Hammond says of the Thanksgiving weekend loss. “It was a hard, hard deal.
We’ve had a great chance to win it all in four of the past five years. I think this is a great motivator for our guys, to get there, finish and win the whole shebang, that’s for sure. It would be tremendous to get over that hump.
Coach Rich Hammond, whose Clovis program has lost in the D-I semis four of the past five seasons.
“We’ve had a great chance to win it all in four of the past five years. I think this is a great motivator for our guys, to get there, finish and win the whole shebang; that’s for sure. It would be tremendous to get over that hump.”
That figures to be dictated by development at quarterback, where senior Sean Kuenzinger (3-0 as a varsity starter in 2014) and junior Trey Lake (JV starter last season) are engaged in “spirited competition,” Hammond says. “We get good quarterback play, we’re going to be really difficult to beat.”
They’ll be tested immediately in an Aug. 28 opener at Paso Robles, which launched a 13-2 and Southern Section Northern D-III championship year with a 48-30 win at Clovis.
The quarterbacks will benefit from one of the section’s finest receiving tandems in Wills, who has been offered a scholarship by Idaho, and Coltin Velasquez.
The Cougars, 8-5 last year, have established talent in every other department as well, including middle linebacker Tanner Rice.
Hammond points to the “fronts that will make us” — an offensive line returning starters Collin Bohny (5-10, 230), Tyler Collier (6-1, 245), Bubba Hernandez (5-5, 200) and tight end Clayton Alexander (6-3, 220), and a defensive line featuring second-team All-TRAC selections Daniel Varian (5-11, 230) and Quinn Vosmera (6-3, 195).
Also figuring prominently in the trenches will be the Nevills brothers — senior A.J. (6-3, 215) and sophomore Seth (6-3, 245). They placed second and first in last season’s state wrestling meet.
Another second-place finisher there was Josh Hokit, who has conference MVP potential as a running back/safety, says Hammond, who continues to flourish with talent from the school’s wrestling juggernaut, which has captured a record five straight state team titles.
Hokit, starting for the third year, has succeeded Alan Crowley, Jason Black and Donell Vercher in a seven-year Cougars run at safety unrivaled in the section.
“Josh might be the hardest competitor I’ve ever seen,” Hammond says.
Edison: Big losses, yet big thoughts
Edison followed the epic rally against Clovis by defeating Liberty-Bakersfield 21-14 for its first top-division football title in 39 years.
And, while the Tigers have lost seven Bee All-Stars, including a Player of the Year and quarterback, and an offensive coordinator as well, coach Matt Johnson expects residuals: “We’ve set the standard now; there’s no more excuses. We did it.”
Edison opens No. 6 in the section after closing 12-2 and No. 24 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
“Sure, we had talent,” says Johnson, The Bee’s co-Coach of the Year in only his second season as the program’s head coach after assisting Tim McDonald for eight years. “But, more than anything else, it was belief. Rather than folding in big games, we came through with a belief these guys carry in a family mantra.”
That said, the family has taken a big hit.
Gone are Vance Sams III, The Bee’s Player of the Year and a two-way force as an offensive lineman and linebacker, quarterback Hunter Swearingen and fellow Bee stars A.J. Greeley, Tyler Horton, Kamron Lewis, Anthony Shepard and Khai Williams.
Gone also are offensive coordinator Vince Branstetter (now Fresno City College quarterbacks coach) and four other assistants.
Running backs coach James Tillman gets the promotion to OC, and Johnson finally succeeded in his pursuit of former Sunnyside coach Jason Murray, who will assist defensive coordinator Marlyn Jackson while also managing daily details as essentially a quality control officer.
Who quarterbacks Edison in a season opener against defensive dynamo and No. 7 Buchanan Aug. 28 at Sunnyside Stadium as opposed to the one behind the steering wheel in a County/Metro Athletic Conference finale Nov. 7 against Bullard at Chukchansi Park could very well involve different players.
Juniors Matthew Torres and Shareef Goodwin, who shared the position last year on the junior varsity, will be the early front-runners. And senior Will Lee, one of the section’s premier players and a major college recruit, will surely be dashing with direct snaps via wildcat plays all along. He’ll also return at free safety.
But the player to watch at quarterback in early October could be transfer Gerard Mendez, who started for Sunnyside last year as a freshman. His eligibility, in question following the transfer, hasn’t been determined by the section.
Nose guard Leevel Tatum is a returning Bee All-Star at nose guard. And the 6-3, 275-pounder also will play fullback and tight end.
Returner Deandre Lockhart and a deep cast of running backs will fire behind an elite left guard in Miguel Marquez (6-1, 260) and center Alim Shabazz (5-10, 240), who will also be featured in a proven defensive defensive line.
The Bee’s preseason Top 10
With league and 2014 record
- 1. Clovis, TRAC, 8-5
- 2. Liberty-Bakersfield, SWYL, 10-3
- 3. Bakersfield, SWYL, 9-3
- 4. Bullard, CMAC, 6-5
- 5. Clovis West, TRAC, 6-6
- 6. Edison, CMAC, 12-2
- 7. Buchanan, TRAC, 3-9
- 8. Hanford, WYL, 12-1
- 9. Central, TRAC, 5-6
- 10. Clovis North, TRAC, 7-4
- Division I: Edison
- D-II: Ridgeview
- D-III: Hanford
- D-IV: Liberty-Madera Ranchos
- D-V: Corcoran
- D-VI: Kennedy