The respective coaches won’t acknowledge its significance — at least not publicly — but make no mistake, Oct. 11 is already circled on more than a few calendars across Kern County.
It’s the date when Bakersfield High and Garces meet at Tobias Field in a matchup of two first-year head coaches, Michael Stewart and Paul Golla, for a key Southwest Yosemite League football game in Week 8 of the season.
But what makes this game more intriguing is what happened several months ago when Golla left BHS — after five Central Sections titles and a state championship in 14 seasons — for the crosstown, league-rival Rams.
It marked the end of an era for the Drillers, and the start of something new — and unexpected — for both schools.
“The Garces rivalry goes back way before I got here,” said Stewart, who starred for the Drillers in the early 1980s before going to Fresno State and the NFL as a defensive back. “But basically any team we play is a rivalry because they’re trying to win a game, we’re trying to win a game and may the best man win on a particular day.
“So I would imagine it would be a little bit more on the Garces-BHS game this year, but I’m sure Coach Golla knows, a game is a game, and trying to accomplish something in the big picture is more important. So there’s not a lot of emphasis on one team to the next because it all comes down to the overall wins and losses.”
Golla had a similar response when asked about the importance of “the game.”
“We think we talk about the process every single day and that’s what it’s about,” Golla said. “It’s about getting better today. It’s about having deliberate practice, and at the end of the day, that will take care of itself. Hopefully, by week … whatever week that is (when we play BHS), we’re in a good place physically and mentally, and getting better every week.”
Regardless of the build-up on the game or added significance, Golla’s decision left strong emotions for players at both schools.
“I was pretty sad (when Golla left), but at the same time I was excited for him because of the opportunity for him and his family,” said Bakersfield senior Isaac Jernagin, a Nevada verbal commit, who played for Golla the past two seasons. “But having another coach come in and just coach us and mentor us is a great thing. Coach Stewart is a great man and he’s doing a great job coaching and mentoring us and making us better every day.”
Garces senior wide receiver Jack Hatten added, “When they hired (Golla), we were ecstatic. Everyone knows he’s the real deal. He’s been so successful at BHS. So when we got him, we were like ‘all right, let’s see what he can do with us.’ We want to see if he can turn us into a winning team, too, because his track record obviously speaks for itself.”
Just how successful both schools perform likely depends on how well they adapt to the new systems each coach has implemented. Golla and Stewart are two of seven coaches starting the year at new schools this season, joined by James Cain (Golden Valley), Rich Cornford (Ridgeview), Richard Starrett (Centennial), Kasey Tittlemier (East) and J.D. Thompson (Delano).
“They’ve picked up the offense and defense extremely fast,” Golla said. “And, it was kind of fun going back through everything with our staff, because we do have new staff members, too. But the process stays the same. We feel like if we take care of every day and take care of the little things, the big things will happen.”
Stewart is also happy with his team’s progress.
“The biggest thing was health and then learning what the scheme is and cutting down on mental errors,” Stewart said. “The great thing is, that these young men are football players and so for most of them, it’s just a matter of tweaking it to where they’re understanding. The idea is for the coach to be more of a teacher because you have learning styles that are different. You gotta bring it across so everybody can pick it up so they get it when they’re out there playing.”
The coaching change didn’t just impact the players. The transition to coaching at a new school, and in Stewart’s case, being head coach at his alma mater, presented some challenges initially for both men.
“I don’t know if people understand the word uncomfortable, but uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing,” Golla said. “But with change is a comfort level, and obviously right now I’m 100 times more comfortable than I was the first day. But I think you should be comfortable being uncomfortable in life, so it’s not a negative, but certainly it was there at the start.”
Stewart added, “Every experience has its pluses and minuses, its challenges, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm here. There’s something new and getting a chance to tinker with this and tinker with that, and put your own stamp on it.
“The thing is to be able to somewhat relate to the kids, bring in some old and mix it in with the new, but then coming out with the same result. Having a disciplined player, a respectful player, a guy who’s going to play hard.”
Full effort shouldn’t be an issue on Oct. 11.
“That’s going to be a very intense game,” Jernagin said.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotions. It’s going to be a very good game. A very intense game.”