The latest week of Central Section football was about who came back, who didn’t, who left and the status of marquee athletes – notably, an illustrious march toward a career record on hold.
It was about, among suspended coaches, one returning from a one-game absence, Stockdale’s Brett Shelton, and another not to return at all, Madera’s Bonner Cunnings.
It was about former No. 1 Clovis answering overwhelmingly to a loss to Central last week that was as bizarre as it was painful while rolling to a 34-13 Tri-River Athletic Conference win at home against Buchanan.
It was about Clovis North escaping, 23-20, in the final minutes at Central, extending – in the case of the losing Grizzlies – a 2-6 season a couple of yards south of 5-3; a 2-6 season also a freak show north of 1-7.
It was about Tulare senior running back Romello Harris being injured, again, in an East Yosemite League game that the 8-0 Redskins would win, 51-27, at Porterville, and the increasingly riveting question: Will these setbacks cost him the section career rushing record?
It was about Hanford’s Ryan Johnson – quarterback of a 9-0 team – being virtually knocked out of a 35-21 West Yosemite League victory over Mt. Whitney and the uncertainty of what that means two weeks shy of surely a Milk Can marvel matchup against ninth-ranked Lemoore.
And, indisputably, Week 8 of the section was about illuminating Friday Night Lights for Week 9.
The ring is roped for heavyweights:
▪ Top-ranked Bullard (7-1, 3-0) – which merely dropped 63 points on a Memorial team that was unbeaten two weeks ago – dueling with No. 10 Sanger (7-1, 3-0) with the County/Metro Athletic Conference plaque dangling Thursday at McLane Stadium.
▪ Fourth-ranked Clovis (7-1, 2-1) – which had been The Bee’s wire-to-wire No. 1 before that 40-hour, 21-20 loss to Central – opposing No. 5 Clovis North (5-2, 3-0) for quite possibly the TRAC title Friday at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
▪ And, also Friday, No. 2 Liberty-Bakersfield (4-3, 3-0) going to No. 8 Centennial (6-2, 2-0) for the Southwest Yosemite League gold.
A coach in, a coach out – Stockdale responded to Shelton’s reinstatement with a 24-20 SWYL win over No. 14 Frontier.
He had been suspended for an undisclosed reason by the Kern High School District for the one game, a 42-7 loss to Liberty-Bakersfield.
Meanwhile, Cunnings has been suspended for the season, district athletic director Marty Bitter says.
The district and Madera police are investigating Cunnings, who allegedly struck a Coyotes junior varsity player two weeks ago.
The Madera third-year coach, who previously had headed Lemoore and Fresno Christian programs, had first been removed prior to the Coyotes’ 69-63 loss at Memorial last week.
Bitter says Cunnings also won’t return to the school as a physical education teacher this academic year.
Bitter didn’t say if the move will be permanent: “Being a personnel issue, I can’t say any more. That’s a district decision while the investigation is ongoing.”
Madera 10-year assistant Dion Cordero will be the interim coach until “further notice,” Bitter says.
Clovis responds with statement– No lightning. No 11 vs. 13 personnel mismatch.
They returned to conventional football at Lamonica and No. 4 Clovis throttled No. 6 Buchanan.
It was about the Cougars responding to a 21-20 loss to Central at the same site the previous week in a game that began on a Thursday, ended on a Saturday because of lightning delay and had Clovis face 13 Grizzlies players on five plays and 12 on another in a potential winning drive that resulted in a missed field goal in the final minutes.
Nothing silly this time at Lamonica.
Conversely, it was a Clovis mauling – pure and simple. And that has become customary against the Bears as the Cougars have won five straight in the series with an average margin of 24.6 points.
Only this Buchanan team arrived 5-2 overall and 2-0 in the TRAC, and never had the Bears even remotely brought those credentials in the previous four games.
But, clearly, they found a Clovis unit with an edge.
If what happened last week couldn’t get the fire in your belly burning and get you to play your best football moving forward, what could?
Clovis coach Rich Hammond, referring to 21-20 loss to Central a week ago.
“If what happened last week couldn’t get the fire in your belly burning and get you to play your best football moving forward, what could?” says Clovis coach Rich Hammond.
His Cougars will face Clovis North, which used a Jayson Lee 54-yard run, setting up his own 2-yard TD run with 1:42 remaining, to win at Central (2-6, 1-2).
There was no such drama at Lamonica Stadium as – a week after Sean Kuenzinger passed for 425 yards, a school record according to section historian Bob Barnett – as Clovis grounded the Bears into submission.
Receiving two scoring runs from Josh Hokit and one each from Christian Copeland and Nash Vidmar, the Cougars rushed for 176 yards in the first half, mounted a 269-131 advantage in total yards, bolted to a 27-7 lead and coasted.
“That’s how you win championships (later) in November,” Hammond says. “I was really proud of our physical our guys played, and against a very physical team in Buchanan.”
All along, Hammond has said he would be selective with the offensive workload of Hokit – a standout safety – with the idea of preserving his legs for the stretch run.
And that drive began Friday night, when the state-class wrestler carried 13 times for 93 yards.
“This was a do or die game for us,” Hammond says. “To win the TRAC, we had to win. I mean, hey, you’ve got to bring everything when you’re in that situation, right? And I thought Josh set the tone early with his physical style of runs.”
Clovis overpowered the Bears up front behind tackles Seth Nevills and Shayne Valdez, guards Bubba Hernandez and Tyler Collier, center Eric Delk and tight ends A.J. Nevills and Colton Byrd, a sophomore just elevated from the junior varsity.
“We ran behind Colton a bundle,” Hammond says. “I’ve got to commend him because a lot of sophomores would have been trembling in their boots. He was outstanding.”
Kuenzinger, who entered as one of the state’s most efficient passers with 1,848 yards, 59 percent completions, 20 TDs and two interceptions, completed 16 of 25 attempts for 160 yards against Buchanan.
What little chance the Bears had of rallying were torpedoed late in the third quarter and again in the fourth when Kuenzinger converted first down passes to J.J. Wills on third-and-12 and fourth-and-11.
Wills, son of former Hanford and UCLA running back great Shawn Wills, finished with six receptions for 62 yards.
“Last week I throw for 425; this week I didn’t have to,” says Kuenzinger. “We got the win, that’s all that matters.”
He said the team had no problem avoiding post-Central depression: “Honestly, by Saturday afternoon, we decided it’s in the past, let’s move on and get this one.”
Chibuikem Dunu carried 19 times for 99 yards and a score for Buchanan.
The Bears played without defensive end Ben Parker, a major college recruit, in the second half because of an undisclosed injury.
Harris, Johnson injuries – It appears Tulare’s Harris and Hanford’s Johnson will return for their next games.
Harris, who already missed virtually all of one game with a broken finger against Kingsburg, left early in the second quarter at Porterville with a left knee injury.
He told The Bee afterward he could have returned if needed, but that wasn’t the case as sophomore Kazmeir Allen – who’s actually faster than Harris – taking over with 202 yards and four touchdowns.
Similarly, Allen shredded Kingsburg in Harris’s absence, rushing for 321 yards and four TDs on only 18 carries.
240 Average yards rushing Tulare’s Romello Harris would need in three games to become Central Section career leader
Back to Harris: He rushed for 104 yards against Porterville, increasing his four-year career total to 7,311.
The Redskins will close the EYL against Mission Oak and Tulare Western. Meaning, given at least one D-II playoff, Harris will need to average 240 yards to unseat section career rushing king Edgar Segura of Mendota (8,029). With two playoff games, that required average dips to 180.
Johnson, the Hanford quarterback, meanwhile, left in the third quarter with concussion symptoms after being sacked.
But the athlete who helped lead the Bullpups to section titles in football (D-III) and basketball (D-II) last year as a sophomore, catches a break in that his team has a bye next week.
Hanford is 5-0 and Lemoore 4-0 atop the WYL. They’ll duel for the annual Milk Can Nov. 6 in a regular season finale at Neighbor Bowl.