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Casey Christie / The Californian

Stockdale High School football players get in a good practice on a hot summer afternoon after school in Bakersfield before the season begins.

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John Harte / Special to The Californian

San Luis Obispo at Garces varsity football. Garces quarterback Jake Pavletich dumps off a pass just as he is hit by a San Luis Obispo defender in the first half Saturday.

If a football season is like a class for the high school teams in the area, it's almost time for midterm grades to come out.

And for Garces and Stockdale, tonight is one last chance to make a good first-half impression.

The Rams (2-2) and Mustangs (1-2) have gone through up-and-down early seasons against good schedules, and now they collide at 7:30 p.m. at Stockdale in a game broadcast live on bakersfield.com.

"This is a huge step for us, if we can beat a Division I team," Garces coach Jim Maples said. "It's a game that has playoff implications for us written all over it. It's something that could give us a (top-four) seed in the (Division II) playoffs if we win this game and handle our business in league."

Garces has lost games to San Luis Obispo (3-1), an upper-division team from the Southern Section, and to Bakersfield, one of the Central Section favorites. They rebounded to beat San Joaquin Memorial in the Holy Bowl, 20-14, on Saturday.

"We really had our best performance of the season to win that game," Maples said. "If things go the way we hope they go, then that will be a turning point of the season."

Before a bye week and league play the week after, the Rams must first tangle with Stockdale. The Mustangs play winless Clovis-Buchanan next week before league, so this might be their final non-league test, too.

After opening the season with a close loss to Stockton-St. Mary's, Stockdale routed Inglewood and then lost 37-14 at Clovis last week.

"You want to keep improving up until league, and then even after that," Stockdale coach Mike Snow said. "But for us, if we play better, the results will be better. Our concern right now is less what the scoreboard loos like and more of how we play.

"We beat Inglewood a couple of weeks ago, and we played OK, but not great. You start believing your press clippings after a game like that. Well, there's no chance of that this week."

Both teams bring high-powered running games into the crucial game. Garces junior Sheldon Croney is second in Kern County with 766 rushing yards, and the Stockdale trio of Anthony Wood, Xavier Chisholm and Adarius Rowel has combined for 868 yards.

"The key for us is picking up first downs and keeping our defense off the field," Snow said. "If we can maintain drives and limit our mental errors, their playmakers don't get as many chances."

Centennial (1-2) also has two games left in non-league play, tonight against Santa Barbara (2-2) and next week at Tulare Union. Conference play begins tonight in the South Sequoia League, with Chavez at Bakersfield Christian, Arvin at Taft and Shafter at Kennedy.

For the rest, there's still some time to prepare.

While some teams seek passing grades for non-league play, Liberty is working on a perfect score. The Patriots are 4-0, with routs of Delano, Tehachapi and Buchanan sandwiched around an impressive triple-overtime victory at Fresno-Central.

Now they'll try to wrap up league play and go into their bye week with a win against Ridgeview (2-2).

"We've talked about that," Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. "We want to complete phase one (tonight). Phase two is league, and we want to go into league on a good note. We'll take our bye week and then hopefully start league right."

Ridgeview beat Liberty last year in one of the Wolf Pack's signature victories en route to the Division III section title. This year, Ridgeview has to deal again with Liberty quarterback Josh Medina, who has completed 74.7 percent of his passes for 844 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

"He's done a really nice job of making his reads and putting balls in positions where receivers can catch them," said Nixon, who's in his first year at Liberty. "He's a very savvy football player. He's easy to talk to about the game."

After the bye week, Liberty opens Southwest Yosemite League play with Bakersfield, the preseason league favorite, on Oct. 11. The Drillers (2-2) also have a bye next week after wrapping up their first half tonight at home against Buchanan.

Bakersfield lost 27-7 last week to Long Beach Poly and dropped from Cal Hi Sports' state top 25.

Also looking to rebound is Frontier (2-2), which has lost two games in a row by double digits after starting 2-0. The Titans travel to West (2-1) tonight and will be without running back Nick Santoro, who sprained his knee in a loss to Clovis North.

Frontier coach Rich Cornford used to coach at West, where he won the D-II section title in 2005.

"It's always nice to go back home," he said. "It's a fun game for me; I'm looking forward to it. After this one, the bye week comes at a good time."

That rings true for plenty of teams, but it's particularly good news if you go into a two-week break with a victory.

"It's been good so far," Nixon said, "but we need to play four good quarters to complete phase one."