Looking ahead to Friday night’s North-Highland football game feels a lot like planning to open Christmas presents during Thanksgiving dinner.
It just doesn’t seem right.
The Southeast Yosemite League opener seems way too early to crown a champion, especially with four games remaining on the league schedule. And although South and 2018 co-champion East will likely have a say in the matter, the Stars (4-1) and Scots (4-1) are going to be tough to beat.
“I think both teams are going to try to be very physical defensively and try and fly around as much as possible,” said Highland coach Michael Gutierrez, whose team’s only loss came in Week 3 to a 6-0 Kennedy squad. “Both teams’ styles, I’m not going to say go together well, but they’ve proven to be a recipe for a good game, because we’ve had tight games two or three years in a row. It tends to be more of a low-scoring affair. I think no matter the style, it’s going to be a good game on Friday, and it should be a fun one to watch.”
The Stars are coming off a bye week, and coach Norm Brown is intent on making sure his team continues the momentum its built with four straight victories.
“Reaching that bye week was a double-edged sword,” said Brown, who has guided North to co-league titles the past two years. “All of a sudden we’re on a four-game roll and then we had to take a week off. So that’s always a concern. How can we get better and not stay the same? We can’t lay our hat on what we’ve done, because that’s done. Obviously you have a space of time there that you have to fill in for your kids. They have to stay motivated and that’s always a coach’s fear coming out of it, two weeks later.”
For what it’s worth, history is on the Stars’ side. North has won six straight games against the Scots, including a 35-16 victory at Highland last year. The Stars also spoiled the Scots’ perfect season with a 28-21 victory over an 8-0 Highland squad in 2017.
“It’s huge,” said Brown of the game against Highland. “They’re really good every year, and we’ve kind of had their number. But I know they’d like to get some payback for ruining their undefeated season two years ago and I know that’s always in the back of the coach’s mind.”
North will rely on a physical ground attack led by double-threat quarterback Titus Liest, who has thrown for 602 yards and four touchdowns, and has also rushed for 246 yards. He rushed for 100 yards and a score in a 28-13 victory over Shafter in Week 2.
The Stars have four players with more than 200 yards rushing this season. Senior Alex Tejeda has gone over 100 yards in three games this year, including a 137-yard, two-touchdown performance two weeks ago against West. He has a team-high 433 yards rushing and six TDs on the season. Junior Brian Dean has 350 yards and six touchdowns rushing, while Alex Ruvalcaba has combined for 522 yards and two scores rushing and receiving.
“Every year it’s been their size and how physical they are,” Gutierrez said. “Last year we could have matched that. Our hope is that this year we can also. We know they also have some good athletes, which is why they’re doing so well. We’re definitely going to have to be focused for four quarters because if we don’t we know they’re going to be ready. We have to match their physicality and play a full game.”
Defensively, the Stars have benefited from several big plays. Senior Waltrevon Lenoir has six interceptions, including three against West, and Alejandro Marquez has a team-high six sacks and nine tackles for a loss.
“We’ve been very fortunate that our guys have played hard all year,” Gutierrez said. “They really seem to be clicking right now, so we’re in a position to play a good North team for what could be a meaningful game. It probably will have a lot of impact on the league.
“We know they’re going to be competitive, they’re going to be tough and physical, so our guys will have to play hard in a game that could have a lot of meaning, whether it be for a league championship or playoff seeding.”
To be in contention, Highland will have to get strong performances from junior quarterback AJ Cleveland, and do-everything seniors Nick Salas and Shabazz Muhammad.
Cleveland continues to gain confidence each game and has not thrown an interception since Week 2. He has thrown for 761 yards and nine touchdowns in his last four games, including two scoring passes to Muhammad in last week’s 38-0 victory over Golden Valley.
Muhammad has 375 receiving yards and four TDs, and also returned a kickoff 85 yards for a score in the season opener. Salas has seen time at quarterback, running back and receiver, returns kickoffs and punts, and lines up as a starting defensive back.
“They are pretty good,” Brown said. “I’ve seen them already a little bit. They have all the pieces of the puzzle, we feel like we do too, so it’s going to be a classic matchup in Oildale. I’m happy we’re at home. Hopefully that will pay off, especially in the fourth quarter.”