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By Felix Adamo / The Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Now that the Central Section has reached its final four football teams in each playoff division, might this finally be the day Bakersfield High receives a test?
Drillers coach Paul Golla answers that question with a resounding 'yes,' as his team prepares to play Fresno-Central (9-3) in the Division I section semifinals at 7 tonight at Griffith Field.
"We're in for it," Golla said. "It should be a great battle. They're big, they're fast. It should be an exciting one."
That would make it decidedly unlike every other section game Bakersfield (9-2) has played this year. The Drillers lost to Southern Section powers Westlake Village-Oaks Christian and Long Beach Poly early in the season, but they've won every game within the section by at least 22 points.
In fact, the last Central Section team BHS lost to was ... Central, in last year's quarterfinals, when the Grizzlies returned an interception for a touchdown on the game's first possession and beat the visiting Drillers, 42-28.
Many of those same Central players are back, including highly touted recruits Tashon Smallwood, a defensive tackle with scholarship offers from seven Pac-12 Conference schools; wide receiver/defensive back Michiah Quick, ranked as the No. 4 athlete nationally by Rivals.com; and running back Nick Wilson, who is verbally committed to Arizona but is questionable tonight with an ankle injury.
"We always preach to our kids that we play ourselves, but it's always good to play somebody you lost to," Golla said. "There is that chip on their shoulder that you want to avenge it. It's more about us moving on that avenging anything, but it's there."
If top-seeded Bakersfield wins tonight, it will host the D-I championship game next Friday against either No. 6 Clovis North or No. 7 Clovis. The Drillers are seeking to extend their state record of 35 section titles.
The Drillers, whom Cal Hi Sports ranks 17th in its latest state top 25, also are still in the running for their first CIF regional bowl berth. Only section champions are eligible; if BHS wins the Central Section, it likely will be compared with champions from the San Diego Open Division and the Southern Section Inland Division for two Southern Cal spots in the Division I bowl game (the Southern Cal Open Division is likely to be filled by the Southern Section Pac-5 Division champion and Gardena-Serra, an undefeated Division II team that is a heavy favorite in its Southern Section bracket).
"Every once in a while, someone will bring the rankings up," Golla said. "It is what it is. Our motto is to win what's important now, and that's this game against Central."
Regional bowls, records and revenge are also among the storylines for Bakersfield Christian (9-2), which plays at Visalia-Central Valley Christian (8-3) in the Division IV semifinals.
CVC handed BCHS one of its two losses back in the season's second week, a 34-33 setback that came when the Eagles failed a two-point conversion try late.
Since then, the Eagles have won nine games in a row, all by at least 26 points.
"We've just come leaps and bounds as a team since that game," BCHS coach Jerald Pierucci said. "This is a chance to get in and try to represent better -- everybody says revenge, but we just want to redeem ourselves. We didn't put our best foot forward, and luckily we have another opportunity."
The Eagles have entered the conversation as a Division IV regional bowl team if they complete a run to the D-IV section title, something that Pierucci acknowledges even if he's not ready to embrace it.
"I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't in the back of my mind and something our kids don't talk about," Pierucci said. "But you just have to push it off. That's the attitude we've had all year."
A regional bowl berth would require not only a win over CVC but also a championship victory against either defending champion Wasco or undefeated top seed Tulare-Mission Oak.
However, if the Eagles get there, they'll keep giving quarterback Brandon Jones an opportunity to chase the Central Section record for passing touchdowns.
Jones, a junior, has thrown for 45 touchdowns entering tonight. The section record is 50 from Tulare Union's Emmanuel Lewis in 2005, according to section historian Bob Barnett. But Jones has more competition: Farmersville's Sam Metcalf, who will finish his season tonight in the Division VI championship game, has 49 TD passes this year.
As Bakersfield and Bakersfield Christian seek revenge, three Kern County defending section champions simply seek a repeat.
Besides Wasco (9-2), which must play 11-0 Mission Oak tonight, Garces in Division II and Ridgeview in Division III are both still alive.
Garces (9-2), the No. 3 seed in Division II, travels to No. 2 Kingsburg (10-1).
"They're the biggest team that we've seen in maybe three or four years," Rams coach Jim Maples said. "They're flippin' huge, all across the front. It puts us in tough matchup positions."
The Rams counter with junior running back Sheldon Croney (2,007 yards, 25 touchdowns) and a defense that has rapidly improved; since giving up 56 points to Bakersfield in Garces' third game, the Rams' D has allowed more than 20 points once and has kept opponents to fewer than 10 points on four occasions. That culminated with a 20-3 victory against Tehachapi in last week's quarterfinals.
"We've just really gelled as a group and gotten some confidence," Maples said. "I've thought my whole career that team defense is a group that runs to the football, plays hard together and trusts each other to do their jobs. And that's one thing I know this team has."
The Garces-Kingsburg winner will face either top seed Visalia-El Diamante or Sanger in the D-II final.
In Division III, Ridgeview (7-5) must travel to No. 2 Porterville (9-2) to continue its title defense. The Wolf Pack won 24-6 at Fresno-Washington Union last week but now must face a Panthers team that has scored more than 40 points in eight games this season and more than 60 four times.
On the other half of the D-III bracket, No. 9 seed Independence (6-6), fresh off an upset of top-seeded Tulare Western, continues its run with a trip to No. 5 Dinuba (8-3) and Emperors quarterback Marcus McMaryion, who is verbally committed to Oregon State.
The seventh Kern County team playing this weekend is Desert (10-2) in the Southern Section's Northeast Division; the Scorpions hit the road for the first time in the postseason, traveling to San Luis Obispo to take on Mission Prep (10-2).