Four weeks ago, it was difficult to imagine the Bakersfield High football team would be in contention for the Southwest Yosemite League championship.
The Drillers had just lost 33-20 in their league opener to Stockdale — the first loss to the Mustangs since 2008 — dropping BHS to 2-4.
But following a pair of impressive victories over Garces and Frontier, Bakersfield slipped past Centennial 10-3 last week to set the stage for Friday’s showdown with first-place Liberty.
“We knew going in after the loss to Stockdale that you have to take them one at a time,” said first-year BHS coach Michael Stewart, whose team is 5-4 overall and 3-1 in SWYL play. “And that’s what we set out to do. Guys have responded really well to at least get it back to an opportunity (to play for a league title). Now opportunity is at the door and we’re going to take full advantage of it.”
That won’t be an easy task.
The Patriots (8-1, 4-0) clinched at least a share of their third straight SWYL championship with a 31-0 victory over Garces last week, and enter Friday’s matchup with a 14-game league winning streak.
“They’re always a good football team, no matter what,” said Liberty coach Bryan Nixon, whose team has outscored its four league opponents 128-20. “Week in and week out they’ve done a job, they’re well-coached and they fly around.
“I think everybody knows what’s at stake this week. You’re talking about playoffs, you’re talking about a league title, you talk about all those things that come into a Week (11). That’s kind of the culmination of phase two. So we want to continue to get better and we look forward to it. We respect them and we’ve gotta come out and play our best.”
Liberty showcased it’s best last week when it rushed for more than 300 yards against the Rams.
Junior quarterback Haden Mann ran for two scores, and junior running back Prentice Boone rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown last week. It was the fourth time that Boone has gone over 100 yards this season. Mann has combined to throw and run for more 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
“Offensively we’ve run the ball successfully and we’ve done a good job getting the ball to our kids with space and they’ve made plays,” Nixon said. “And that’s the biggest difference between the beginning of the year and now."
Big plays have been synonymous with senior Ramon Henderson, despite a quiet night last week. He has 22 catches for 423 yards and six touchdowns, but his explosiveness has shown best on special teams. He returned a kickoff 88 yards for a score against Clovis West in Week 3 and then returned another 90 yards for a TD two weeks later against Clovis North.
“We always talk about getting better week to week," Nixon said. "And we feel that we’re doing that. We talk about that constantly that we want to build off last week and continue to get better. We’re trying to eliminate those little mistakes and take care of the little things.”
The Drillers will rely on a talented group of seniors, led by senior running back Wesley Wilson, wide receivers Elijah Hall and D.J. Adams, and Cameron Bonner.
“At the end of the day the one thing we have in common is that they’re all high school football players playing on Friday,” Stewart said. “So that being the case, obviously you have some good players on both teams. We’ve also told our young men that it’s not always about the X's and the O's. You play it with your heart. So I’m sure it’s going to be a fun-filled night and both teams will be out there playing with the type of emotion that good high school football is all about.
“We just want to be ready to play on Friday. We’re going up against a great Liberty team. We’re just excited to be here with this opportunity.”