Bakersfield Christian is talent-laden. The Eagles have left no doubt about that as they've marched through the regular season and playoffs.
But to reach a state championship bowl game, it takes more.
"The biggest thing that's happened to us from September until now is our kids finally sold out to the fact that the team comes first," said second-year BCHS head coach Jerald Pierucci. "It's obvious from the way we've been playing."
The final hurdle is Modesto-Central Catholic (14-1), the defending Div. IV state bowl championship winner.
The Eagles (12-2) and Central Catholic meet at 4 p.m. today at the StubHub Center in Carson, near the L.A. Airport, for the Div. IV state bowl championship.
Central Catholic brings a 13-game winning streak into today's game with three victories in the streak by four points or less.
"You've got to stay focused and you've got to be a little lucky. We got a little bit of both," Raiders coach Roger Canepa said of his team's return to the Div. IV bowl championship game.
To reach today's game, the Eagles had to survive two hard-fought Central Section Div. IV playoff games, both on the road: a 21-14 win at Visalia-Central Valley Christian that avenged an early-season loss and 35-34 at Tulare-Mission Oak, a game the Eagles rallied from a 20-0 first-quarter deficit.
"A lot of teams would've given up," junior running back Matt Smith said of the 20-point deficit against Mission Oak. "A lot of people would've said, 'That's the end of our season. This is going to be a long night. They'll put up 60 on us.'
"But we rallied. We said, 'This game's not over.' Nobody gave up and that's the reason we got the win. Everyone worked their tails off."
As Pierucci prepared his Eagles for today's game, he couldn't help but compare Central Catholic to some of the teams BCHS has already faced this season. He said the best comparison was CVC.
"They're not a big play offense," Pierucci said of Central Catholic. "They're a ground and pound.
"They run a modulated Wing-T attack, so they're in double tight ends with a wing and two backs.
"They've got a quarterback who can throw pretty well. They have a running back that has over 2,000 yards of rushing this year. They're 70 percent run, which is not that uncommon in that type of offense."
The Raiders have 62 rushing touchdowns this season and 11 passing. Senior Matt Ringer has 2,348 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns. Senior Reggie Bland has 14 rushing TDs and 455 rushing yards.
Ringer suffered a thigh bruise in last week's 17-14 win over Oakland-McClymonds. He's expected to play but may be slowed by the injury.
No Central Catholic quarterback has more than five passing TDs. Senior Donovin Townsend is 49-of-95 for 724 yards and four TDs and sophomore Hunter Pitlansky is 26-of-50 for 484 yards and five TDs.
BCHS is much more of an explosive offensive team.
Smith leads the ground game with 1,667 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, and he's added 20 catches and three TDs as a receiver.
Smith sat out much of the third quarter of last week's 40-8 win over L.A.-View Park Prep after aggravating a right ankle injury he hurt the week before against Mission Oak. But he returned late in the third quarter and scored his third touchdown of the game.
Junior quarterback Brandon Jones has unbelievable numbers: 226-of-388 for 3,980 yards and 52 touchdowns.
If he throws three TD passes today, he'll pass Farmersville's Sam Metcalf and become the Central Section's all-time leader in touchdown passes for a single season. Metcalf set the record this season.
"It's harder when they can run and pass," Canepa said of BCHS' success on offense. "You can't overlook one or the other. They throw a ton of passes, but that kid (Smith) runs hard.
"We've watched film. He's a guy who breaks tackles."
This is the first state bowl appearance for BCHS and the third for Central Catholic. The Raiders reached the 2007 Div. III state bowl game, losing to St. Bonaventure. There was no Div. IV bowl game at that time.
In last year's Div. IV bowl game, Central Catholic built a 59-0 halftime lead over Solana Beach-Santa Fe Christian and won 66-7 in a game that had a running clock the entire second half.
Central Catholic's only loss this season came Sept. 6, 47-27 to Stockton-St. Mary's, a Division II power from the Sac-Joaquin Section.
St. Mary's later lost to Concord-De La Salle, the Open Bowl finalist Saturday, and also lost to Loomis-Del Oro 24-14 on Oct. 4. Del Oro is facing Bakersfield High tonight in the Div. I bowl championship.
"That's the type of teams we're playing," Canepa said.