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Wednesday, Aug 27 2014 11:34 PM

HS FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Talent abounds among runners

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ridgeview High School football player Sheldon Croney.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    LIberty High player Anthony Mariscal goes after the ball carrier during 6 a.m. practice at Liberty.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Frontier High's Isaiah Sharp looks for running room during a scrimmage with BCHS Friday.

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BY TREVOR HORN Californian staff writer thorn@bakersfield.com

Eight years ago, in the Golden Empire Youth Football league, there was a feeling that there was something special going on.

There was a handful of running backs making cuts and running over and around the rest of the competition. The future seemed bright.

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OTHER BACKS TO WATCH

n Andrew Dean, sr, Golden Valley: A bruising back at 220 pounds, he went for 1,164 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2013.

n Logan Lukenbill, jr, Desert: Posted the second-best rushing performance in Kern County with 2,212 yards and 26 touchdowns -- as a sophomore.

n Robert Rivera, sr, Delano: A healthy senior season could mean another 1,000-yard plus season for the Tigers senior back.

n Brandon Robinson, jr, Centennial: Skilled with speed and power, he rushed for 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2013.

Those little tikes are now closing out their high school careers this fall, and as impressive as they were as 10-year-olds, they're even more of a sight to see now.

Those "little guys" -- Sheldon Croney, Marcus Bruce, Anthony Mariscal, Isaiah Sharp and Matt Smith -- now are the leaders of what is one of the best overall running back classes in Kern County history.

"It's been a while since we have seen that many come through at one time," East coach David Fanucchi said. "This is really a special time here for the fans."

Yes, there have been fantastic individual seasons: Steve Wofford at Bakersfield, the county's leader in career rushing yards with 7,100 from 1992-1994; Ryan Mathews with his incredible 3,396-yard, 34-touchdown performance as a senior at West in 2006; and most recently, Cody Shirreffs' 2,317 yards for Taft in 2009.

But this group, diverse and deep, is special, and the players are enjoying the end of their impressive run here at home.

"Growing up, we all knew each other and have been around each other playing Golden Empire," Bakersfield Christian senior Matt Smith said. "We knew we were going to be that group."

Smith, an imposing presence at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, has rushed for at least 1,300 yards in each of his three seasons for the Eagles, including 1,694 yards and 24 total touchdowns as BCHS went to the CIF Division IV state championship game a year ago.

Sheldon Croney, now at Ridgeview, has the best overall season of the group after rushing for 2,377 yards and 28 scores for Garces last fall.

A transfer brought Croney back to his neighborhood school for his last prep season. Looking back at the years playing against his fellow seniors, Croney said it has been a blast to be a part of this impressive group.

"We all knew at a young age that we were all talented," Croney said. "We knew it could pay off in the end."

Isaiah Sharp was an all-state performer as a sophomore for Wasco in 2012. His 2,317-yard, 34-touchdown performance helped lead the Tigers to a 13-0 record. Injuries kept Sharp off the field for half of last season, but he still managed 889 yards in six games on an out-of-this-world 16.94 yard-per-carry average.

Sharp transferred to Frontier in the offseason. Titans coach Rich Cornford was at the helm at West during Mathews' career when the San Diego Chargers running back shined, and Cornford says Sharp is "the best back I've coached since Ryan."

"Sharp has a lot of the same attributes as Ryan," Cornford said. "He doesn't waste time. He's a really good all-around player and a very well-rounded young man."

Bruce's numbers at Bakersfield aren't as shining as the other seniors around the city, but his leadership and athleticism has made him a third-year starter for the Drillers.

Teamed up fellow senior Lameshio Hill, Bruce likes the fact that the two get to battle it out daily in practice together for the defending D-I state champions.

"Me and Lameshio, we get to go against each other every day in practice," Bruce said. "Every play, it's either him or me. We compete every day."

Mariscal, the only one of the bunch so far that has verbally committed to play college football, might very well be the fastest of the bunch, too.

Headed to Arizona as defensive back, Mariscal led Liberty a year ago with 1,089 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The toughness and selfishness that Mariscal plays with was evident in the final game last season. In a playoff loss to Clovis, Mariscal couldn't play offense after dislocating his elbow. But he still made an impact on defense, intercepting a pass, and, with his left arm dangling to his side, zooming past the Cougars for the score.

Healthy now, Mariscal sees a future for this group of backs: To finish out their stellar prep careers and shine on the big stage at Division I college programs.

"I know we were all going to play in college," Mariscal said. "We have always had the spotlight on us. This class is becoming the name out of Bakersfield. We have some talent that no one has seen. We are all capable of great things."

Smith and Croney have both been on the radar of many colleges, with Smith pulling in offers from Colorado State, Utah State and UC Davis while Croney has a Pac-12 offer from Oregon State to go along with seven other offers.

As all of Kern County football fields still boast the old-school grass fields that the rest of California has stopped using in the last decade, it makes sense that the offenses here are geared around a three-yard burst and a cloud of dust.

Or, thanks to the unreal talent of these backs, it's more like a 20-yard scamper with a juke, a stiff-arm and defenses left in the rearview mirror.

"You have running backs that defenses have to try and stop before they go another 70 yards," Bakersfield coach Paul Golla said. "Those are things you can't coach."

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