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Liberty-Garces highlights opening night for SWYL, SEYL and SYL football schedule

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Garces' Ian Jernagin rushes for a first down against Clovis West in the season opener.

The coaches responsible for nine of the last 10 Southwest Yosemite League titles will be on opposing sidelines Friday night at Tobias Field, albeit with different schools then when they first shared the championship back in 2010.

Only Rich Cornford, whose Frontier squad went 5-0 to win the league in 2010, will be missing. He’ll be providing color analysis for the Frontier-Stockdale game across town.

And although there’s no guarantee that this week’s SWYL opener between Liberty and ninth-year coach Bryan Nixon, and Paul Golla-led Garces will produce another league crown, a victory certainly would be a good start. Kick-off is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday.

“It’s always good to open league play here in town,” said Nixon, whose Cody Kessler-led Centennial team shared the SWYL title with Bakersfield High in 2010. It was Nixon’s last league crown at the school before moving to Liberty in 2013. “It’s exciting for our kids, and to be able to open against an opponent like Garces is good and it’s always going to be a challenge. The SWYL, week-in and week-out, you’ve gotta bring your A game.”

The Patriots (3-2), ranked fifth in the Central Section by MaxPreps, have captured three straight league titles, and five of the last six. They have won 15 straight league games in a streak that dates back to a 44-17 loss to Bakersfield High on Nov. 4, 2016. Liberty has also won 18 consecutive against Kern County opponents.

The No. 6 Rams (3-2) have yet to win a league title since moving to the “power league” in 2014, a year after securing four straight Southeast Yosemite League championships, but Golla has. The third-year Rams’ coach guided BHS to four SWYL titles during 14 years as Drillers coach, a tenure that included a CIF State championship and four Southeast Yosemite League crowns.

“They’re a great, solid all-around team, not a lot of weaknesses,” Golla said of Liberty. “You always try to look at where you can expose them and they’re solid everywhere. They do a great job with their kids and prepare them for football games. I think one of the reasons, year-in and year-out, why we have such a hard preseason is the same thing. We want to prepare our kids for the big game, for a game like this week.”

Although the game’s outcome will have an obvious impact on the league race, with possible playoff seeding ramifications, both coaches prefer to focus — at least publicly — on what their individual teams can control.

“The one thing that we’ve been focusing on is doing the little things right,” Nixon said. “And you know we say, ‘do the little things right and big things will happen.’ So we just have to be sure we take care of the little things and come ready to play because it’s a quality opponent and they’re always very well-coached.”

Golla has a similar view.

“We have to focus on the process,” Golla said. “The process is where you win the game. The scoreboard is for the fans. It’s each snap, and before that, each snap in practice. That’s what wins games. Great practices that carry on into the game because you’re obviously going to create habits, and those habits that you create in practice, that’s what we need to rely on on game day.”

Both teams are battle-tested, entering with 3-2 records following a mostly-rigorous preseason schedule, and each is coming off a bye week.

Led by a balanced scoring attack and a stingy defense, the Patriots dominated their opening three games before suffering a pair of close losses to state-ranked teams, 14-13 to Concord-Clayton Valley (60th), and 28-21 to Santa Barbara-Bishop Diego (42nd).

Senior quarterback Carson Woods has thrown for 592 yards and eight touchdowns, with senior Jason Oliver his primary target. Oliver has 13 catches for 382 yards and six touchdowns, with junior running back Jalen Hankins compiling 417 yards and eight scores on the ground.

Defensively, the Patriots have forced 10 turnovers and are allowing just nine points per game.

“Our preseason was long, in that we traveled over 1,600 miles in our five games and our kids were very resilient and prepared for that,” said Nixon, whose squad opened the season with a 28-3 victory over Spanish Springs in Sparks, Nev. “We lost a couple of close ones that were just flat battles, and our kids, their attitudes and their effort was great. They were very competitive and very physical, so we have to build off that and move forward into Phase 2.”

Garces is looking to continue to build momentum following a 48-21 victory at Tehachapi two weeks ago. The victory followed a pair of losses to state powers, 30-14 to Bishop Diego and 34-10 to Fresno-San Joaquin Memorial (34th).

The Rams’ offense has been carried by an impressive rushing attack that features four players with more than 200 yards on the ground.

Senior quarterback Travis Plugge, who has thrown for 404 yards and three TDs, has run for a team-high 468 yards and seven scores, with Logan Bowers posting 433 yards and five touchdowns. Ian Jernagin, the BVarsity All-Area co-player of the year in the spring season, is finally healthy after being limited with a leg injury part of the season. He has 263 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while junior Zamir Hall has contributed 225 and two scores.

Much of the Rams' success on the ground is due to a much-improved offensive line, something Golla has been pleased with thus far.

“We continue to get better,” Golla said. “Our offensive line … hats off. In the beginning of the year we thought, ‘man, what are we going to do?’ And they have just gotten better and better every single week. So we’re really excited about the offensive line. The competition they’ve gone up against is some of the best that we’ve ever seen … So it’s been a great challenge for these guys and they’ve stepped up.”

Garces’ solid line play figures to be important each week, particularly during league play, where all six teams are ranked in the top 20 in the Central Section, according to MaxPreps.

In addition to Liberty and Garces, the SWYL features No. 9 Centennial (4-0), No. 11 Frontier (3-1), No. 17 Stockdale (4-0) and No. 19 Bakersfield (0-3).

“It’s much improved this year,” Golla said. “During the bye I always look at the competition throughout the Valley and it’s much-improved from last year and years before. There’s no doubt about it. I mean coaches have gotten a little bit better, there’s more talent, so I do think it’s probably the toughest the league has been.”

Nixon has similar expectations for league play.

“It’s a week-to-week thing and you can’t look past anyone because our league is so solid and the guys coach their tails off,” Nixon said. “It’s always fun to play in this league because you know what you’re going to get every Friday night.”

All six teams will be in action this week, with Frontier playing at Stockdale at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, and BHS hosting Centennial on Saturday at 1 p.m.