Caden Ochoa has played a lot of meaningful football games for Bakersfield High during his high school career.
The BHS senior standout woke up Friday morning wanting more heading into the Central Section Division I semifinals at Liberty, a team the Drillers lost to just two weeks ago.
Ochoa sent out a mass text message to the rest of the seniors and it seemed so simple: “We woke up in the morning and had a senior group chat and text each other and said this isn’t it. We are not going out like this. This is not it.”
And the Drillers didn’t go out, instead dominating rival Liberty 41-6 on Friday.
It seemed so simple on Friday, but the season has been a struggle for BHS (6-5).
The Drillers were beat handily in the non-league slate by Southern California powers like West Hills-Chaminade and Valencia, and to a Utah powerhouse in Orem.
Then the Drillers dropped a thriller to Garces in the Southwest Yosemite League opener and finished the regular season in a 27-24 loss to these same Patriots.
“We’ve told them that we are unpredictable because we could blow somebody out or we could lose by two,” BHS coach Paul Golla said. “So whenever we figure this out we are going to be a heck of a football team. And tonight proves it to them. It’s not just talk. It’s truth.”
BHS will play at No. 1 Fresno-Central in the semifinals next Friday in a rematch of last season’s section championship.
A team penalized like crazy all year and one with a penchant to not capitalize on opportunities in the regular season seemed transformed.
Yes, BHS turned the ball over three times, including on the opening play of the third quarter that set up the lone Liberty (6-5) score of the night.
Yes, BHS was penalized 12 times for 101 yards.
But none of that seemed to matter here.
Ochoa was a one-man wrecking crew on both sides of the ball for BHS.
The Cal Poly-commit ran the ball 17 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns and connected with Justin McGill for a 32-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. He then put an exclamation point on the night with a 10-yard scoring toss to Tahj Wright in the final minutes of the game.
McGill also intercepted an Isaiah Hill pass for the opening score as McGill returned the ball 58 yards in the first quarter.
Like Ochoa, McGill is a senior on the BHS team that tasted glory last season, beating Central for the program’s 37th section title.
Like the team this season, McGill had his ups and down this season, but put together his best performance, which included two pass deflections.
“It was a struggle, but I came out here and fought with my brothers,” McGill said. “I told them that I don’t want this to be the last game together.”
That seems to be the biggest thing that excited Golla after this win, despite a season of hiccups and blowout losses.
“What’s exciting is all the people that told us that we’re not that good, that Liberty is going to kill us and this and that,” Golla said. “Our kids just believed and kept fighting. Our backs were against the wall and we performed.”
Liberty was without standout running back and linebacker Sam Stewart, Jr. for most of the first half due to an apparent ankle injury. Stewart returned in the second half, but only rushed for 36 yards on seven carries.
“He’s a good football player that goes both ways for us,” Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. “It is what it is. We didn’t play our best tonight and they played a great football game.”
There was a sense of BHS royalty on the sidelines with former BHS greats of recent past like Derrick Vickers and Steven Marks in attendance. Those players helped lead BHS to the CIF State Division I title in 2013. Also with the team Friday was Navonte Demison, who caught the winning pass for BHS over Central last December.
Ochoa and the rest of the senior felt their presence and performed like past BHS teams.
“When you see those guys in the sideline, it’s motivating,” Ochoa said. “You’ve got eyes on you that have won it. Have won Valleys, have won state. We had to perform now. They give us a little energy boost to play harder.
“We finally figured it out,” Ochoa added. “That second half was really our turning point and that’s the team that’s going to be playing from here on out. We can be a great story in Bakersfield High school football history and that’s what we plan on doing.”