The calendar still says September, but the high school football playoffs are on an awful lot of minds heading into tonight's Week 5 action.
That's just fine with folks in Shafter, who haven't thought about the postseason in years. The Generals won nine games in the previous five seasons combined; this year's team is 5-0 and has a chance to pass that total by itself.
"Last year, a 2-8 record doesn't show much, but we were pretty pleased at the end of the year with the strides we were making," second-year coach Ricky Ishida said. "Maybe it wasn't recognized by other coaches, but we knew we had the potential."
That potential has blossomed this year, thanks to a prescient personnel change: Kyle Millwee moved to quarterback, where he's thrown for 144 yards per game with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Moe important, that freed up last year's QB, Derrick Barton, to line up wherever Ishida and staff wanted him.
The result has been remarkable: Barton has 519 rushing yards and 372 receiving. His 15 total touchdowns are four more than any other player in the Central Section and is tied for eighth in the state, according to MaxPreps.
"Kyle and Derrick are both good enough athletes to adapt to any situation," Ishida said. "They feed off each other well, and they're both very good team players. They've excelled at it."
Tonight at 7, Shafter heads to Taft (2-3), which is enjoying a resurgence of its own. After three straight losses to open the year, the Wildcats have won back-to-back road games at Corcoran and Arvin.
"We have to play a full game," Ishida said. "Four quarters of football, without a moment where we can sit there and relax. It's going to be a very good challenge."
And if the Generals should pass for the sixth week in a row, Shafter will dream about playoff time that much more.
"The people I've called in the community say we've been talked about a lot," Ishida said. "And that's awesome, especially in a small community like Shafter. It’s extra motivation to keep going, keep winning.”
Traditional west Bakersfield powers Stockdale and Centennial are both 1-3; both schools have a policy that states if teams aren’t .500, they won’t enter the Central Section playoffs.
At 7:30 tonight, both play at home against Division I opponents: Stockdale against Clovis-Buchanan (2-2) and Centennial vs. Tulare Union (1-3). Lose, and either team would need to go 4-1 in the rough-and-tough Southwest Yosemite League just to get to that .500 mark.
“That’s a pretty tough task,” Centennial coach Bryan Nixon said. “It’s very important that we win (tonight), but honestly, we just need to come out and play well and consistently for four quarters. We haven’t done that yet.”
Last week, Centennial led at Santa Barbara late when a first down that would have effectively ended the game was called back on the Golden Hawks’ 15th penalty. On the next series, Centennial fumbled the ball away, and Santa Barbara scored to win 24-21.
“Fifteen penalties and two turnovers, you can’t do those types of things against any football team,” Nixon said. “That’s not a good recipe.”
Many teams in the area are on a bye week before league play begins, including Bakersfield (5-0) and Garces (4-1), the favorites for the top seed in Divisions I and II.
Other teams have one more game before the league schedule begins.
Ridgeview (3-2) plays host to Fresno-Washington Union, which won the Division III state bowl championship last year but has lost its first four games. East (0-4) travels to Independence (3-1) and Golden Valley (2-3) plays at Foothill (1-3).