It could be considered a monumental moment to get a Shafter football coach to say much of anything positive about Wasco.
So when Jerald Pierucci, a Shafter alum in his third year as the Generals coach, did just that, it shows just how big this weekend is for the South Sequoia League.
Three of the seven league members are playing in the Central Section football semifinals Friday night.
Shafter is at home as the No. 1 seed in Division V against No. 4 Woodlake, while No. 3 Kennedy is on the road at No. 2 Caruthers in D-V. No. 8 Wasco looks to continue its improbable run in the D-IV playoffs at No. 4 Visalia-Golden West, after the Tigers upset No. 1 Porterville last week.
“I told (Wasco coach Chad Martinez), ‘Hey I am actually rooting for you guys because you are an SSL team. But don’t tell anybody,’” Pierucci said. “We hope Wasco does well, too.”
Add in the fact that Kennedy beat Arvin in the D-V quarterfinals, and the SSL showed just how tough that league has been this season.
“It speaks to the quality of schedule we have within our league,” Pierucci said. “Some leagues, it’s a detriment to play in their league, where in ours, it helps us out.”
Shafter (11-0) is in the semifinals for the second consecutive season. But last season's home playoff loss as a 2-seed to No. 3 Firebaugh still gives Pierucci and his players an uneasy feeling.
“I think whenever you can put two seasons together of getting to the semifinals, it means you have done a pretty decent job as a football team and a program,” Pierucci said. “This is a big game for us emotionally to get over that hump.”
A big plus for Shafter this season is the record-setting pace senior Alex Aguilar has been on. Through 11 games, Aguilar now has 57 total touchdowns. The Central Section record is 62, last set by Brandon Jones at Bakersfield Christian in 2013. Both of the players have been coached by Pierucci and a host of assistants that were with him at BCHS.
“The cool thing about it, it’s the two different ways that record was taken,” Pierucci said. “Brandon did it with his arm while with Alex, it’s been with his legs and his arm. For us as a coaching staff, it’s been special to be a part of those two things.”
Kennedy (11-1) is seeking the program’s first D-V section title game appearance after winning consecutive D-VI titles in 2014-15. The Thunderbirds lost in the quarterfinals last season after moving up a division.
A win for Kennedy and Shafter would set up the first all-Kern County section championship game since Wasco beat BCHS for the D-IV title in 2012.
“This is great. I thought the whole league would be improved,” Kennedy coach Mario Millan said. “Everyone upped their game .. For the SSL overall, it’s been great.”
Caruthers is undefeated at 12-0 after the Blue Raiders went 12-1 last season, with its lone loss coming in the CIF Southern California regional playoffs to Orange.
Both Kennedy and Caruthers are similarly-run programs that utilize a run-heavy offense and a bevy of undersized yet hard-working players.
“We are built exactly the same,” Millan said. “We watch them on film and thought they were big thick kids, then you go on their roster and you realize they are built just like us. We are mirror images. We are hoping that they haven’t seen any adversity.”
That also plays into the strength of the SSL.
Both Shafter and Kennedy’s strength of schedule, according to Calpreps.com, is much higher than Woodlake or Caruthers.
“For us, it’s huge that we have been in some big games,” Millan said.
That also plays into Friday’s D-IV semifinals for Wasco. The Tigers, as the No. 8 seed, upset No. 1 Porterville with a 20-7 defensive gem where Wasco snagged four interceptions to advance to the semifinals for the first time since the Tigers went 13-0 in 2012.
“We have been doing what we like in terms of our offense and keep the chains rolling and the defense has been playing tough,” Martinez said. “I knew we would play Porterville tough, but the defense played lights out.”
Despite playing on the road again at Golden West (6-5), the Tigers (9-3) have confidence once again knowing that Porterville, the team Wasco handled last week, beat the Trailblazers 28-13 two months ago.
“We just come to play and we strap it up,” Martinez said. “This means a lot to these boys. They have done the heavy lifting. We are just going to keep this thing rolling for as long as we can. Not a lot of schools are still practicing and we are excited to go out there Friday.”