Neither the challenge nor the stakes of tonight's Central Section Division IV football championship are lost on Bakersfield Christian coach Jerald Pierucci.
"It'd be huge," he said. "I think going from where we were three years ago, almost on death's bed, didn't have a JV program, only 36 kids in the program, and to come back to this. This is the biggest game this school has ever seen football-wise."
Pierucci's Eagles (10-2) travel to Bob Mathias Stadium in Tulare for a 7 p.m. game tonight against top-seeded Mission Oak (12-0).
The winner receives not just a section title -- it would be the first in Mission Oak's brief history and the third for BCHS (but first since Derek Carr graduated in 2008) -- but also likely a CIF regional bowl game berth when those matchups are announced Sunday.
"In all honesty, if we win, we go," Pierucci said. "That's how I feel."
The first part of that equation won't be easy. Mission Oak is the section's only undefeated team and has won 11 of its 12 games by at least 18 points. The Hawks boast 2,000-yard rusher Elijah Porchia and a punishing defense that has allowed more than 10 points just three times all season.
"Oh, they're pretty good," Pierucci said. "They have a good running attack with Elijah, a good receiver, a pretty good quarterback. But the thing that gets by the most is their defensive front."
Bakersfield Christian, on the other hand, has won 10 straight games with a powerful offense that includes quarterback Brandon Jones, who broke Carr's school record with his 47th touchdown pass in a semifinal win over Visalia-Central Valley Christian last week, and running back Matt Smith.
"I don't think they've seen anybody who's as balanced as we are," Pierucci said. "You've got to defend us pretty legitimately. You can't just key on the run or the pass."
Bakersfield Christian was in a similar situation last year, on the road as an underdog against an undefeated team in a Division IV title game with regional bowl implications. The Eagles led Wasco for three quarters before falling, 29-22.
"We're all pretty excited," Smith said. "We all know this is a big game. Being there last year, we have a chip on our shoulder."
Garces, Ridgeview hope for repeats
While Bakersfield Christian tries to reverse the result of last year's championship games, Garces and Ridgeview look to defend their titles with teams very different than last year's versions.
In Division II, Garces (10-2) takes a nine-game winning streak to Visalia to take on top seed El Diamante (11-1), which could be without running back DeAngelo Torres.
The Miners, who have to deal with a Garces team that threw the ball for 3,100 yards en route to a Division II title last year. This year, the Rams lean on junior Sheldon Croney, who has run for 2,281 yards and 27 touchdowns and has early scholarship offers from Colorado State and Boise State.
"This is a completely different team than what we had last year," Garces coach Jim Maples said. "My coaching staff has done an unbelievable job. Last year, it was pretty easy with the firepower we had."
Croney ran for 274 yards on 34 carries in the Rams' semifinal victory at Kingsburg.
"Sheldon is one of those rare kids that come along maybe once in your career," Maples said.
Garces' defense has also dramatically improved; the Rams allowed multiple big plays in early-season losses to San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, but they've allowed just 17 points in two playoff games.
That doesn't mean the Rams will roll tonight; El Diamante, a D-II powerhouse, has lost only to D-I semifinalist Fresno-Central.
"They remind me a lot of us," Maples said. "They're very good at every position; they don't have any weaknesses."
Garces and El Diamante will play at Golden West High School in Visalia. About 25 miles to the north, the Division III title game features a more unpredictable matchup: No. 6 seed Ridgeview (8-5) against No. 5 seed Dinuba (9-3).
Ridgeview is back in the championship a year after beating Dinuba 55-14 behind a stellar peformance from its senior class.
A young Wolf Pack team struggled early this season; at one point, consecutive losses by scores of 56-7, 55-7 and 26-0 dropped Ridgeview to 2-4.
"You start to think, 'Well, maybe it really is a rebuilding year," coach Dennis Manning said. "But I think eventually the excuses went out the window."
Ridgeview has won six of seven and stunned No. 2 seed Porterville 38-35 in double overtime in last week's semifinals despite injuries to two quarterbacks, Lawrence White and Darryl Blackshere.
"Even though we've been on the road, it's been a blast," Manning said. "The kids have played well and played together."
Now the road leads to Dinuba, which averages 40.3 points a game behind Oregon State-bound quarterback Marcus McMaryion and star running back Michael Wright.
Ridgeview will have to answer with a shorthanded offense. White is questionable with a knee injury, and Blackshere is doubtful with a concussion. If they can't play, freshman Ja'mar Moya will see the majority of snaps at quarterback.
"It's gonna be a tough game," Manning said, "but our kids have proven they can handle it. It's going to be an exciting night."