Every August, football coaches in the Southwest Yosemite League utter some variation of the same phrase:
"Everyone has to go through Bakersfield High."
"The road to the title runs through BHS."
"The conversation has to start with Bakersfield."
And that quite literally becomes true in the final two weeks of the regular season, beginning at 7:30 tonight when the Drillers (6-2, 3-0 SWYL) take on Centennial (5-3, 2-1) with first place in the league on the line. If BHS passes that test, it finishes finish the season with Stockdale (4-4, 2-1), in a game where first place could be on the line again.
After that, of course, it'll be playoff time.
"That's the thing," Bakersfield coach Paul Golla said. "We always say, 'Water boils at 212, so we've got to be at 212 degrees when the playoffs start.' Hopefully we're hot, but we know we have to continue to get better."
Right now, the Drillers, ranked No. 18 in the state by Cal Hi Sports, seem to be rapidly approaching the boiling point. Since losing 27-7 to state No. 10 Long Beach Poly, the Drillers have ripped off four straight wins, three over Division I teams, by an average margin of 34 points.
Quarterback Asauni Rufus, who verbally committed to Nevada as a safety this week, leads a Bakersfield attack that will challenge Centennial.
"The hardest thing to do is simulating their speed," Centennial defensive coordinator Mike Gregg said. "They have so much speed, all across the board."
Golla said Bakersfield's defense has made the team's greatest strides.
""Our gap assignments -- we call them fits -- our fits are becoming better, and they have to," he said. "Our offense started off so strong, but we're playing defense better now."
Making matters more complicated for the Golden Hawks is that head coach Kevin Sneed, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for throat cancer, has missed two practices this week and is questionable to coach tonight.
If Sneed is unable to coach, Gregg would become the acting head coach.
"If you ask me, he'll be there (tonight)," Gregg said. "He's our head coach, and it's been tough not having him here, but we've had some pretty good practices."
Centennial guaranteed itself a playoff spot last week (the school requires all of its teams to be at least .500 to accept a bid) by beating Independence. That's already an accomplishment for a team that was 2-8 a year ago and has a first year coach battling cancer -- albeit one who has never had a losing season as a head coach.
"We've told our kids that it's a challenge, that we're the underdog each week," Gregg said. "They've responded pretty well."
Still, Gregg said the Golden Hawks have bigger goals in mind.
"We've coached this whole week and prepared for this weekend with the thought that we can maybe upset these guys," he said. "That's our plan. We know we're playing the best team we've played this year and probably the best we're going to play. But we're excited to see how we match up."
There's more pressure across town, where Stockdale (4-4, 2-1 SWYL) hosts Frontier (3-5, 0-3).
Stockdale also has a .500 rule, so it must win one of its final two games to reach the playoffs -- and, remember, the finale is at Bakersfield. Frontier coach Rich Cornford said he has told his players they must win their final two games to enter the playoffs, though the ultimate decision would rest with school administration.
"It wouldn't be for sure, but that's the way I'm looking at it," Cornford said. "I've told the kids the playoffs start now."
That makes this a virtual elimination game for the playoffs -- and Frontier will be without starting quarterback Evan Moore, who sprained his shoulder in last week's loss to Bakersfield. He'll be replaced by Caleb Thompson.
Stockdale, meanwhile, will try to rebound from a last-minute 27-26 loss at Liberty last week.
"We're not hanging our head about it," Mustangs coach Mike Snow said. "I thought our kids played their guts out. We played well, and we just have to continue to do that."
Around the county
Elsewhere, surging West (4-4, 2-1 South Yosemite League) can clinch a share of the SYL title if it wins at home against Mira Monte (0-8, 0-2).
The other share would come from Ridgeview (4-5, 2-1), which is off, or from the winner of tonight's game between Golden Valley (5-3, 1-1) and South (6-2, 1-1). The Rebels, who have lost two straight after a 6-0 start, welcome back speedsters Keith Evans and Asonte Johnson, who were suspended for disciplinary reasons last week. South hasn't won a league title since 1995.
"The attitude last two weeks hasn't been good, and you've seen results of that on the field," South coach Cary Mills said. "This week it's been better. Our guys have been through a lot this year, and they're realizing now, hey, we're going to be in the playoffs and we want to have some success."
In the Southeast Yosemite League, Garces (6-2, 3-0) and Tehachapi (6-2, 3-0) need home victories over East and Foothill, respectively, to set up a showdown for the league title next week at Garces.
Bakersfield Christian (6-2, 4-0) can clinch a share of the South Sequoia League title by winning at Taft (3-5, 1-3). Wasco and Shafter are both 3-1 in the league and can set up one of the most important meetings in the history of their storied rivalry if they both win this week.