When a team finally secures its first Central Section playoff victory since its star player was in third grade, it tends to send good vibes all around.
Stockdale beat Santa Maria-Pioneer Valley, 45-24, last week in their Division II first round game. Junior quarterback Evan Burkhart rushed for 331 yards in the contest and scored five touchdowns in the Mustangs' first playoff win since 2010.
They'll look to keep it going Thursday when No. 7 Stockdale plays at No. 2 Tulare Western (9-1) in the quarterfinals. The game will be played at venerable Bob Mathias Stadium in Tulare at 7 p.m.
“We are having a blast. This is a great group of kids,” Stockdale's fifth-year coach Brett Shelton said. “They worked their tails off all year long. For them to bounce back from some tough losses and really start to gel at the end.”
Stockdale began the season 0-2 before moving Burkhart to quarterback. In turn, the Mustangs (6-5) have won six of their last nine games.
Shelton said the team has improved as a whole throughout the season and the chemistry gets better with each win.
“That’s really what you want as a coach, with them gelling and really enjoying each other,” Shelton said. “They want to be out here.”
Burkhart had a career night last week, with three of his touchdown runs going for more than 70 yards each.
An electric playmaker with next-level speed, Burkhart has not allowed the new-found success to go to his head. Instead, he thanks his offensive line, knowing that his fame isn't possible without his teammates blocking up front.
“Not without them,” Burkhart said. “They care about me scoring. Yes, I get the highlights and all of that, but when it comes down to it, they are the ones doing the actual work. They are satisfied getting pancakes and knocking people down. They live for that.”
Stockdale has also gotten great help on the outside offensively from Brandon Dunn, Jeremiah Gradowitz, Tanner Willford and the recent emergence of David McGee and Dylan Majors.
“Our O-line did a really good job, especially this last week being on the same page,” Shelton said. “The secondary level of our receivers and the attitude and effort, it gives Burkhart a little more space when he does get outside the pocket or on designed runs.”
Stockdale will go up against one of the top running backs in the section on Thursday. Tulare Western junior Tairyn Johnson has rushed for 1,577 yards and 25 touchdowns. Coupled with brothers Elijah and Jordan Burrell, and Tulare Western's team speed could pose problems for Stockdale’s defense.
“Our defense has to come up,” Shelton said. “Last week we had guys that were over-pursuing or under-pursuing. But when you’re facing a speedster like we are about to face, you’ve got to be disciplined and focused.”
North on road in quarterfinals, again
For the second consecutive season, North will have to head out on the road to advance to the D-IV semifinals for the second consecutive season.
The Stars opened the playoffs with a 24-7 win at home against Tulare-Mission Oak. But once again as the No. 6 seed, North (7-4) heads up to Porterville to play No. 3 Monache (6-4) at Granite Hills High School on Thursday.
Last season, the Stars upset No. 3 Selma, 36-33, in the quarterfinals.
“It seems like at the end of the season, we finally all say, ‘Oh crap, it’s the playoffs and we need to start playing,’” Stars senior Chris Romero said. “We are seniors now and we need to step up and make plays.”
Romero leads North with 1,377 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, as fellow seniors Damien Mireles and Cameron Gray have more than 100 tackles this season.
But North, already without quarterback Michael Doten the rest of the season because of injury, no longer has the services of fellow senior James Johnson, who is no longer with the team for unspecified reasons.
The loss of both players puts even more strain on North, but Romero says the team has learned to play through adversity.
“When someone goes down, there is always someone else there to help us make plays and step up,” Romero said. “That’s how good this team is.”