BY ZACH EWING, Californian staff writer
The players know one another from childhood, and after it's over, they talk about their games later that weekend and will for the rest of their lives.
This is Centennial vs. Liberty, and while it's relatively young -- the teams have faced each other just six times -- it is a true rivalry, born in geography (the schools share a ZIP code and are about four miles apart on Bakersfield's west side), competition (each team has beat the other three times) and familiarity.
But for all that, the Freedom Bowl is about to experience something never seen before.
Centennial visits Liberty at 7 tonight for the teams' first playoff meeting. At stake is a spot in the Central Section's Division I championship next week, which would be a first for either school.
"Centennial is a big neighborhood rival," Liberty senior Brady Burk said. "But those (other games), they mattered, but they didn't matter to where it would have hurt us in the playoffs. This is the semis."
It's for a spot in the grand-daddy of high school football in the Central Section.
"They're good friends of mine," Centennial senior Elijah Trail said. "It's from playing other sports with them, that kind of stuff. It's fun. It's a friendship, bragging rights stuff ... (but) the common goal here is just to get to the Valley championship."
No word on whether the Freedom Bowl trophy, which went to Centennial in a 10-6 victory in Week 2, will be exchanged after this one. No word, either, on whether anybody cares.
"This is bigger than a trophy," Liberty's Rane Cravens said.
Besides geography and common friends, the teams have another similarity: They're both riding high from upset quarterfinal victories on the road. No. 5-seeded Liberty (8-3) and its bruising defense went up to beat No. 4 Fresno-Central, 27-21 in double overtime.
"Right now, I believe offensively and defensively, we're playing as good of football as we've played since I've taken over," said Liberty coach Tony Mills, who's in his second year.
As impressive as that road win was, it pales in magnitude to No. 8 Centennial's amazing playoff run. The Golden Hawks (8-4) survived No. 9 Clovis East at home, 16-14, then went up and stunned unbeaten No. 1 Clovis-Buchanan 26-24 with a last-second 40-yard field goal from Christian Williams.
"The kids truly believe, and I think they're playing really well right now," Centennial coach Bryan Nixon said. "They know the playoffs are a fun time."
Centennial also owns that quality win against Liberty from early in the season, a 10-6 affair that didn't threaten any offensive records.
This time, Liberty hopes that its spread offense, still an infant back then but now more advanced, can move the ball behind quarterback Dillon Meadows. He's rushed for 1,136 yards and thrown for 785 more, accounting for 19 touchdowns in the process.
Still, it takes no football guru to realize the Patriots live off of their hard-hitting defense. Senior defensive back Zach Vasquez alone took out two Fresno-Central starters with big hits last week.
"Our coaches and everyone has so much faith in our defense," Vasquez said.
But Centennial has its own quarterback who can improve on that Week 2 performance. Junior Cody Kessler missed three games with an ankle sprain late in the regular season but has returned for the playoff run. He threw for 270 yards and a touchdown against Buchanan and set up the winning kick with a last-minute drive.
If this week's game comes down to those kind of dramatics, the heroes will be neighborhood legends.
And -- oh yeah -- they'll also be a win away from a section championship.
"I think about that every day," Kessler said. "We're excited. We want a Valley championship really bad."
Others look for finals berth
In the other Division I semifinal, No 6 Bakersfield (9-2) travels to No. 2 Fresno-Bullard (11-0) in a rematch of a quarterfinal from last year that the Knights won 35-14.
"We had about eight offside penalties," Bakersfield coach Paul Golla said. "We were first-and-20, second-and-20, and no matter what, we were in bad situations."
That's not to say that fixing mistakes will solve all of the Drillers' problems.
"We've got to play the best game we've ever played this year," Golla said. "We're going against an extremely well-coached, extremely good football team. Maybe the best we've faced. Maybe not. But we've got to be the best we can be."
Meanwhile, in Division II, No. 3 Frontier (10-1) looks to continue the school's deepest playoff run against upstart Visalia-Redwood (7-5), the No. 10 seed that knocked off No. 2 Visalia-El Diamante last week.
"They've played a whole bunch of good teams, and they've won their last four," Frontier coach Rich Cornford said. "They're a hot team right now."
Tehachapi (10-2), seeded second in Division II, plays host to No. 3 Porterville (9-3). A victory would give the Warriors a chance next week to win their third straight section title.
No. 3 Taft (9-2) visits No. 2 Fresno-Washington Union (9-2) in the Division IV semifinals.