In households and offices through Kern County, calendars have received a few noticeable modifications in the past few weeks.
That’s particularly true for Friday, Aug. 21, which undoubtedly had been circled, marked with an “X” or highlighted in some way. And for good reason. It is the date that the high school football season was supposed to start — pre COVID-19.
Following last month’s announcement by the CIF that Week 1 of the season has been pushed back to the first Friday of 2021, the local prep football community has been forced to scribble-out, erase or white-out what was supposed to be an exciting start to the school year.
Fortunately, there is a bit of a silver lining. Assuming the spread of the coronavirus can be controlled by then, the opening week of the season — Jan. 7 — promises to be a good one. The remainder of the pre-league schedule isn't too bad, either.
Although the complete schedules have not been released, some schools have started to unveil their opponents and school athletic directors and coaches aren’t messing around.
For starters, Bakersfield Christian will host Visalia-Central Valley Christian in a rematch of last year’s Central Section Division 3 title game. The Eagles won the game and went on to capture the school’s first CIF state football championship, beating Rohnert Park-Rancho Cotate, 42-21 in the Division 3-A final.
“Opening up with CVC … we know each other really well,” BCHS coach Darren Carr said. “So you have to have a couple tweaks for Game 1. When we played them in the Valley championship, they did a couple of things here and there that caused big plays for them.
“But it’s nice to open up with a team that you’re familiar with, and we’ll dive into that. As a coach you do try to take it one game at a time, but you do look forward to certain matchups and gameplan for them if you can.”
Things won’t get much easier for the Eagles the following weeks with games against Fresno-Edison, Tulare Union and Visalia-Golden West, all in preparation for South Yosemite League play.
“Every year being a high school coach, it’s not like being in the NFL where you can sign a Ben Yurosek to a 10-year deal,” said Carr of his talented two-way star who will play at Stanford this season. “So you have to see who you have coming back and kind of put people in different spots because we lost basically 10 guys on our defense that started. So we have holes to fill. So taking care of that stuff, taking care of personnel and making sure you’ve got guys in the right spots is the most important thing during the preseason.”
SYL rival Ridgeview obviously has a similar approach to preparing its football team. The Wolf Pack, which defeated the Eagles to win the league title last year, have a Week 5 home game scheduled with Fresno-Central, the defending CIF state 1-AA champion which has won three straight D-I titles.
“I’ve always felt that you need to test your team in the preseason,” Ridgeview coach Rich Cornford said. “You want to win every game, but you also need to know what your team is made of. So when Central called us and was looking for a game, we figured, ‘hey, we’re not going to back down from anybody.’ We’ll take them on and we’d love to get them at home here. So it’s a great opportunity for us to play maybe the best team in the state, and again, find out exactly what we’re made of before we enter league play.”
In addition to Central, the Wolf Pack have games against Liberty, Bakersfield High, Stockdale and Clovis.
“I don’t think there’s too many people around that have a tougher pre-league schedule than we do, which is important for us,” Cornford said. “We don’t have any other Division 1 teams in our league, so we’ve really got to make our work during the preseason. And it’s good for our kids. We also have a couple of kids that are getting recruited and college scouts want to see them play against Division 1 level opponents.”
BHS will also get a shot at taking down Central on the road in Week 3.
“If you’re going to be the best, you have to play the best,” said second-year Drillers coach Michael Stewart. “So our goal is to simply take that to the Central Valley. And going to play at someone else’s home is a challenge in itself. But there’s also some advantages of playing on the road. What we’ve seen is there seems to be less distractions and guys seem to hone into what needs to be done once we get off the bus and get ready to go.
“Obviously, it’s a great opportunity for us to play a great team that has proved to be consistent over a number of years, and it will be a good challenge for us early in the season.”
Bakersfield will open its season on the road with a difficult matchup with Los Alamitos, followed by a Week 2 game against Clovis.
“The goal ultimately is that your players don’t blink,” Stewart said. “When you get into certain situations, if you’ve been there before, whether you’re behind or you need a crucial play in a crucial situation, that’s something that hopefully your players and coaches aren’t panicked about. And then ultimately, hopefully, when you get into the playoffs and where we say it all counts for something, you know, win or go home, you’ve been there, done that and it hopefully becomes a little more of second nature with you being there.”
Although not all schedules have been posted, Southwest Yosemite League power Liberty figures to have another tough preseason schedule. The Patriots, who have won 15 straight SWYL games, will host West Hills-Chaminade in a Week 5 game. The Eagles lost to state finalist Chatsworth-Sierra Canyon in the Southern Section D-2 title game last year.
In the Southeast Yosemite League, Richie Bolin will open his first full season as North High coach when the Stars host a strong Porterville squad that lost in the section D-4 semifinals last season. Bolin took over the program midseason, leading North to four straight wins and a berth in the D-3 quarterfinals.
It’s all a part of helping the team’s gain much-needed experience, preparing them for the rigors of league and the playoffs, Cornford says.
“I coached in the SWYL for a long time and I realized sometimes you’ll have (a bad record),” Cornford said. “When that league is loaded, I’ve had really good teams that end up with 5-5 records. I understand that going in and I’d prefer not to end up on the losing side of a few of those games, but you’ve gotta challenge yourself. That’s why Ridgeview is playing Division 1 football. We don’t play Division 1 to go up against a bunch of lower division teams. We want to go against the best.”
Perhaps the most intriguing schedule involves Garces and second-year coach Paul Golla.
The Rams open the season with its first-ever game against Clovis West, on the road at Veterans Memorial Stadium, followed by a nostalgic matchup with Santa Barbara-Bishop Diego in their home opener on Jan. 15.
The two teams met on Oct. 18 1947 in Garces’ first home game, played at Bakersfield Speedway, then known as the Thunder Bowl. The Rams, known as the Shamrocks at the time, lost 25-0 to what was previously Santa Barbara High.
Following a bye, Garces will host Fresno-San Joaquin Memorial, which has won three straight section titles, and then will finish off the non-league schedule with home games against San Juan Capistrano-St. Margaret’s and Tehachapi.
It’s a schedule Golla hopes will challenge his team.
“If I’m a tennis player and I play a bad tennis player and I beat them 100 times in a row, I’m pretty confident, but I don’t get much better,” said Golla, a longtime Bakersfield High coach who will coach as an opposing coach at Griffith Field for the first time when the Rams play BHS on March 5.
“And so it’s the same thing with football. We want to get better so we want to play the best. We want to play the best caliber opponent we can so we can learn and get better from it. And then it also tests your character.
“So right from the get-go, what kind of character does your team have? Is it a team that when it’s a close game they figure out how to win? And it’s a way for us to look at our kids and to see them in a situation where it’s playoffs, it’s playing in the CIF championship … So you’re able to expose it and fix it, in theory.”
Shoring things up is something Golla and Stewart had to do on the fly last year, while at the same time introducing their players to new systems as first-year coaches. The hope is that the learning curve will be much greater in their second seasons.
“We’re excited because last year was obviously a transition year,” Stewart said. “There were a lot of distractions and a lot of things happened, so this is really more of our kickoff year, where you get to start doing those things that you were trying to get into place, and those things will be more second-nature, too. Now our players know how we approach practice, how we approach game week, academics, and the parents know the same, and you can get a little more togetherness and cohesiveness, and so we’re excited about those types of things, and then seeing how we have matured from Year 1 to Year 2.”
Golla has a similar mindset.
“We have a lot of returners from last year, and that makes it fun,” Golla said. “And those guys know the system, they’ve kind of figured out my personality, so it’s exciting, but like everyone else in this country we just want this COVID-19 to go away so we can start developing kids and see them in person.”
And he can’t wait to get started.
“My brain works like this, it’s August, September, October, November, December,” said Golla of the start of the upcoming season. “I’m thinking we’re only three or four months away and I’m stressed out. We gotta get going. So for me, the season is just right there. And I think a lot of people think we have a lot of time, but three, four months is not a lot of time. But we’re excited.”