Top-seeded Clovis High cleared a hump that had grown into a mountain, defeating Clovis North 28-14 Friday night at Lamonica Stadium to charge into the Central Section Division I championship.
The 11-1 Cougars, who had lost in the semifinals in four of the past five years, followed the lead of quarterback Sean Kuenzinger, who directed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
And that was punctuated by his game-sealing 13-yard scoring pass to sophomore tight end Colton Byrd on a fourth down with about a foot to go with 3 minutes and 31 seconds remaining.
Byrd had replaced All-Tri-River Athletic Conference tight end Clayton Alexander (broken leg) midway through the season.
“It’s great to be there (in the championship),” Clovis coach Rich Hammond said. “I’m just proud of our guys and for the sophomore (Byrd) for catching it and getting it done.”
The Cougars will return to Lamonica for next Friday’s title game and, good golly, look who awaits.
Clovis is the only Clovis Unified school with a winning record against Clovis North, which began varsity play in 2009.
It’s second-seeded Liberty-Bakersfield (8-3), which pummeled No. 3 Bullard 41-7 in arguably the most impressive performance among D-I teams in the section this season.
A Liberty-Clovis final has been anticipated by many since August.
The Patriots, who rolled through the Southwest Yosemite League this season, lost 21-14 to Edison in last year’s D-I championship.
Liberty, which will counter Kuenzinger with an electric quarterback of its own in Jordan Love, has but one section football title and that was in D-III in 2001.
The Cougars, conversely, have captured eight top-division crowns, the last in 2002.
Hammond expressed relief after escaping a semifinal.
“Yes, it’s great to win, but obviously this can’t be the pinnacle,” he said. “We’ve got one more to go. It’s a one-game, winner-takes-all.”
It’s great to win, but obviously this can’t be the pinnacle. We’ve got one more to go.
Clovis football coach Rich Hammond
Clovis on Friday night faced frightening odds of beating a good team twice.
The Cougars had defeated Clovis North 41-28 four weeks ago in the TRAC.
Last year, Clovis beat the Broncos (7-5) in the quarterfinals after having lost to them in league.
And it appeared dicey for the Cougars this time after Clovis North took command behind running back Jayson Lee (127 yards rushing, one TD) to tie it 14-14 late in the third quarter after falling into a 14-0 first-quarter hole.
The Broncos ran 42 offensive plays to Clovis’ 12 in the second and third quarters.
But Kuenzinger directed a 10-play, 79-yard drive capped by Josh Hokit’s 1-yard TD plunge for a 21-14 lead with 8:39 remaining.
Kuenzinger’s 17-yard pass to JJ Wills on third-and-3 sustained that march. And Kuenzinger’s 6-yard completion to Coltin Velasquez on third-and-4 extended the clinching drive.
Kuenzinger, averaging 238.2 yards passing a game coming in, completed 12 of 14 attempts for 128 yards. And he completed his last eight straight in a game played in mid-40 degree temperatures.