The road to the Central Section Division I football championship is littered with major obstacles, so it's easy to overlook the first one.
That would be a mistake. See: Centennial in 2009, which, as a No. 8 seed, survived a battle with No. 9 Clovis East in the first round.
"I remember that game," Liberty coach Tony Mills said. "If it wasn't for bad special teams (from Clovis East), Centennial wouldn't have won that game."
Instead, the Golden Hawks went on the road, stunned top-seed Clovis-Buchanan with a late field goal, returned to Bakersfield to beat Mills' Liberty team in the semifinals and then put a scare into Fresno-Bullard before falling in the section championship.
None of that would have happened if Clovis East had taken out the Golden Hawks first. That's the message Mills has for eighth-seeded Liberty as the Patriots prepare to face No. 9 Buchanan in a first-round playoff game at 7 tonight.
All section playoffs games start at 7 p.m.
"You can go ahead and look at brackets and 'what if' this and 'what if' that, but the most important game you're ever going to play is this one (tonight)," Mills said. "That's the mentality we take. Without winning this game, there is no tomorrow."
Liberty (6-4) handled Buchanan (4-6) rather easily in the regular season, jumping to a 35-7 lead and winning 42-21. But Mills, whose team can advance to play No. 1 Clovis next week, cautions this is a different Bears team.
"Buchanan is much improved," Mills said. "They've changed personnel, put more competitive, aggressive players on the field. And we were fortunate the first time to play well in all three phases of the game."
Liberty scored two touchdowns on special teams in that meeting, perhaps making the game look like more of a mismatch than it was.
Speaking of games that look like mismatches: No. 12 Clovis East (2-8) at No. 5 Bakersfield (8-2), the defending section champion.
The Drillers, minus a three-game lull in the middle of the season, have looked dominant. The Timberwolves lost their last five games by an average of 36 points and only avoided the bottom seed in Division I because the section wanted to avoid a first-round rematch between Clovis East and No. 4 Fresno-Central. Drillers coach Paul Golla isn't taking any chances.
"Early on they were healthy and they looked much better on film," he said. "Maybe they're healthy again now. But the big thing is, we've got to focus on ourselves. If we don't turn the ball over, don't give up the big play, we feel like we can play with anybody."
No. 7 Stockdale (5-5) is a third Southwest Yosemite League team at home tonight. The Mustangs face No. 10 Fresno-Bullard (7-3).
The first round also begins in the lower divisions, most of which have smaller brackets. That means byes for local top seeds in Division II (Garces), D-III (Ridgeview) and D-IV (Wasco).
No. 11 West visits No. 6 Tehachapi in Division II in a rematch of a regular season game. Defending state bowl champion Fresno-Washington Union is at Delano in D-III, and No. 8 Arvin hosts No. 9 Chavez in a South Sequoia League rematch in Division IV.