The South Sequoia League took a step forward this year, even as it reverted back to a look from years past.
The league was created as a way for one-town, one-school communities in Kern County to compete against each other in a way football was intended for in rural America.
It was Tehachapi, Wasco, Shafter, Arvin and Taft that were the mainstays in the league for decades.
The towns shut down early on Fridays and join together to bond, and Wasco is one of the best around.
“Win, lose or draw, the town has the team's back,” said Chad Martinez, who is in his first full year as the head coach at Wasco. “They have all been supportive and the boys have earned that support. It’s awesome.”
Martinez and No. 8 Wasco (7-3, 4-2 SSL) hosts No. 9 East (5-5, 4-1) — the co-champions in the Southeast Yosemite League — at 7 p.m. on Friday in the Division IV postseason, as the Central Section playoffs begin this week.
They hope to carry on a long-standing SSL tradition.
Over the last 18 years, the league has gone through several iterations and has welcomed in seven different members. Liberty, a mainstay atop the D-I standings in the section for the better part of the past 10 years, was once part of the SSL.
Tehachapi was king for a long time before bolting for the South Yosemite League in 2012. Golden Valley made a quick two-year stop before joining with the rest of the public schools inside the Bakersfield city limits.
Even Garces was an SSL power for years.
But four original members remain, and are now joined by McFarland this year and the two newest Delano schools Chavez and Kennedy.
With Bakersfield Christian moving into the SYL this season, for the first time in more than 20 years the SSL did not have a Bakersfield high school as a member. And the top-half of the league flourished in 2018 as it resembled its not-to-distant past.
Shafter and Kennedy garnered much of the attention this year, as both teams were 8-0 just three weeks ago before Shafter beat the Thunderbirds 47-14.
The Generals are the top seed in D-V as the Central Section playoffs begin Friday. Kennedy, which finished the season 9-1, is No. 3 in D-V.
Those two cruised through the season except when they took on Wasco, which competed in both contests.
“We’ve been in every single game we’ve played in,” Martinez said. “We have had a chance in the last drive in all three losses. Our defense has kept us in games. We are in a good spot. We know we can play with any team we play against.”
Wasco lost to North 29-26 and suffered five-point losses to Shafter and Kennedy.
In his first full year as the Tigers head coach, Martinez, who grew up Inglewood and played two years at Fresno State, said the players have bought into the coaching staff.
“We got the guys to believe in their team and their teammates. They do it every play," Martinez said. "With this offense, you need unselfish play....They all block like they are getting the ball. That’s huge.”
Martinez didn’t try to change the game that has been successful for so long at Wasco.
The Tigers continue to run the triple-option offense. Wasco leads the county with 544 rushing yards per game, led by sophomore Christian Alvarez who plays much larger than his 145-pound frame would suggest. Alvarez has rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 scores.
Joel Rocha is second on the team with 812 yards and, according to Martinez, is one of the vocal leaders for Wasco along with Noah McClain, who has 79 tackles and three interceptions.
“They get the team fired up and being the voices in the locker room,” Martinez said. “Those voices are an extension of the coaching staff.”
Being an eight-seed guarantees the Tigers a home game in what figures to be a toss-up game — East runs a spread-option offense, and were the co-champions in the Southeast Yosemite League along with North.
Martinez has reminded his players this week that nothing is given and the playoffs are win or go home. With No. 1 Porterville awaiting the winner, Martinez feels that playing well in three tight regular-season losses to high seeds puts the Tigers in a good spot.
“One thing I told them was to enjoy it. That’s the bottom line,” Martinez said. “This could be it. With all likelihood this is the last home game and they need to enjoy.”