It’s not something typically shared with the public, but among area football coaches, it’s common knowledge.
There’s a short list reserved for the elite high school football teams in the area — and no surprise — Liberty and Ridgeview are on it.
The two teams did little to hurt their position on "the list" last week and enter Friday's game at Ridgeview looking to improve their stature. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., barring delays for excessive heat in the central valley.
“(The game) is a measuring stick and that’s why you put good teams in your preseason because you need to find out areas where you need to improve," Ridgeview coach Rich Cornford said. "If we were playing just a bunch of teams that we could roll over, we’d never know the areas that we’re weak. We need to know specifically what we need to work on the most.”
The Wolf Pack (1-0) pulled away from Stockdale in the third quarter in last week's season opener, scoring 35 straight points during one stretch en route to a 44-21 victory.
“They’re well-coached and those guys fly around and make plays," said Liberty head coach Bryan Nixon, who led the Patriots to a 24-0 victory at Paso Robles last week. “They had a good week last week so we have to worry about what we’re trying to do and try to slow them down.”
The Patriots’ (1-0) strong effort in Week 1 was also displayed on the defensive side of the ball. Liberty battered and bruised a hard-nosed Paso Robles squad determined to pound the ball on the ground.
“We know (Liberty is) one of the top teams in the state and we’ve got our work cut out for us, but we are confident,” Cornford said. “We feel like we have a good football team, but we’re still a young football team. We start mostly juniors, so this will be their first experience with extremely, high-level competition. So how they react to that will be interesting.”
In the opening week against Stockdale, Ridgeview shook off a slow start — and some struggles running the ball — and began to open things up in the second half.
The result was an impressive statistical performance by Wolf Pack quarterback Justin Hinzo, who threw for 303 yards and four touchdowns. The senior also ran for a score.
That presents quite a contrast from what the Patriots faced last week.
“They are two totally different teams,” said Nixon, comparing the offensive style of the Patriots' first two opponents this season. “Paso Robles came out with a I-back/tight end set. A little bit of a smash mouth concept with the (isolation) and the power. Ridgeview runs a spread and they try to get the ball to the athletes with space to stretch you vertically. Two totally different concepts, but it also gives us a chance to line up against that and to get better with what we’re doing in our preseason.”
Sparked by a suffocating defense, Liberty cruised to the shutout win in its opener despite struggling at times to score points. The Patriots had more than enough offense though and received key contributions from a variety of players. They finished with 252 yards rushing, with three different players running for scores, including quarterback Haden Mann. Mann finished 8 for 16 passing for 99 yards and also rushed for 54 yards on eight carries.
“I was really pleased with our overall effort (last week),” Nixon said “I thought we played fast and our defense was tenacious. There was a lot of times on film where we had 10 and 11 guys to the ball. That was something that was really encouraging and really fun to watch. Hopefully we can continue to build off of that.
“Offensively, I think we got ourselves behind the chains a few times and couldn’t recover from that. Overall I thought they did a good job, we just didn’t finish some drives in the end zone. Hopefully we can finish a bit better this week and work some of those kinks out and see where we go.”
Ridgeview also had its challenges at times in Week 1, and trailed the Mustangs 14-9 late in the first half.
“Stockdale was good, especially up front and they gave us some trouble early on,” Cornford said. “But Liberty doesn’t have a weakness that I’m aware of, really. So trying to find areas where we can attack them is a challenge."
Nixon is also hoping for improvement this week.
“We know that historically the growth between Week 1 and Week 2 is some of the biggest growth of your season,” Nixon said. “So we’re hoping that we continue to grow.”
Highland at Shafter
Another intriguing Week 2 matchup will be played about 30 miles north when the Generals host the Scots.
Shafter is talented, but extremely young, and hardly resemble last year’s South Sequoia League championship outfit that took a 12-0 record into the Central Section Division-V finals last year. The graduation of do-everything quarterback Alex Aguilar left the team’s controls in the hands of sophomore quarterback Tyson Dozhier — who played like a sophomore last week, according to Shafter head coach Jerald Pierucci.
“We have to improve,” said Pierucci, whose team committed six turnovers last week, including five fumbles by Dozhier, in a 37-22 victory over Mira Monte. “You can’t win against a good football team like Highland and turn the ball over six times. A lot of it was just youth.
“(But) I think that’s going to be us this year as we learn, because we are so young. I only have seven seniors. And a lot of these kids haven’t played varsity football before. So as we go through these new experiences for them, there’s going to be a learning curve.”
The Scots rode the success of Shabazz Muhammad to a 21-6 victory over Arvin last week. Muhammad had 196 yards and two touchdowns on five catches, and also returned a kickoff 85 yards for a score. He added five tackles and an interception on defense to lead Highland.
No word on whether Muhammad also plans to drive the Scots’ team bus this week.
“The other night he was able to do things on deep balls, take a short pass and turn it into something big,” Scots head coach Michael Gutierrez said. “It was just great seeing him flash that kind of ability. The nice thing for him was to see him make plays on offense, defense and special teams. I think everyone was able to see his explosiveness.”
The two teams have split their last two meetings, with the winning team scoring more than 40 points in each contest. Whether either of these teams possess that kind of firepower this season remains to be seen.
“We know they are always going to be well-coached and well-prepared,” Gutierrez said. “Coach Pierucci does a great job with them. You can see on film that they are very disciplined and that they know what they want to do and they do it well. So we know it will be a fight. We know it will be a good game and very competitive.”
Pierucci added, “I think we’ll be better this week than we were last week, and that’s what we have to continue doing. But Highland is a very good football team. They went through a lot of youth last year, they’re still young, but they played a lot of sophomores last year. They were kind of us last year. But it’s a good matchup. It’s two teams that are very similar in makeup.”