The similarities between the rise of the Shafter and Chavez football teams is startling, especially when you consider the road each traveled to South Sequoia League supremacy this season.
The Titans took their lumps the past two years winning just three games and going 2-10 in SSL play. The Generals struggles happened earlier in the season when they started 1-4, a year removed from a near-perfect season.
Now the two teams will forever be linked as 2019 SSL co-champions.
“We were five points away from being undefeated,” said Chavez coach Jesse Ortega, who led the Titans to their first league title since sharing the SSL championship with Bakersfield Christian in 2014 under current McFarland coach Casey Quinn. “But it is what it is, and I think we’ve got everything we could out of this group of kids, as far as what they thought they were capable of. We knew what they were capable of.”
After losing to East earlier in the year, Chavez (8-2, 5-1) began to hit its stride after a 35-34 loss to Arvin in Week 7. The Titans closed the season with road victories against Wasco and Taft, followed by a dramatic 21-17 win over Kennedy (8-2, 4-2) on Friday night.
“I’m not saying it was a good thing, but us losing to Arvin … I think that was a wake-up call,” said Ortega, whose team was 0-9 in 2017. “As an individual player, as a group or as a team, or even as a staff, we gotta make sure we have all our bases covered. We can’t take anything for granted. And that’s not to take anything away from Arvin. I have a lot of respect for those guys over there, their players and the coaches.”
The Titans received another wake-up call on Friday night. Kennedy built a 14-0 first-quarter lead before Chavez began to pick up the pace. The Titans tied the game at 14-14 midway through the third quarter, but trailed 17-14 with less than 3 minutes to play following a 34-yard field goal by the Thunderbirds’ Rolando Monroy.
A long run by Chavez quarterback Cameron Huerta put the Titans in the red zone, and led to the go-ahead touchdown, a 5-yard scoring play by Damien Espinoza with 55 seconds to play.
But with three timeouts, Kennedy was able to move the ball down field. The Thunderbirds appeared to have scored the game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock, but RFK was called for a penalty for an illegal man down field, and had to repeat the play. Chavez batted down a desperation pass on the ensuing play to cinch the victory.
“It took us a little while to settle down,” Ortega said. “I think going into the half, our kids picked up a lot more confidence. For whatever reason, that’s just how we’ve played.
“As coaches we want to win every quarter, but they find ways in the second half to get back in it, and more often than not, pull off a win. That’s kind of what happened. These kids just keep on believing. I’m so proud of them, especially this senior class. They’ve been through a lot the last couple of years.”
The Generals (6-4, 5-1), who graduated many of its top players last year including do-everything quarterback Alex Aguilar, struggled to find its way early in the year with several inexperienced players. Things were compounded by the fact that star wide receiver Jackson Sanchez had to miss the first three games of the season with an injury.
Ironically, an injury to sophomore quarterback Tyson Dozhier in a Week 5 loss to Chavez played a big role in Shafter’s turnaround.
The Generals inserted Sanchez in at quarterback, and kept him there even when Dozhier recovered. Shafter utilized the super-talented Dozhier primarily as a running back and wide receiver and the team hasn’t lost since, winning its last five games.
“I think that was the turning point,” Shafter coach Jerald Pierucci said. “Jackson stepped in and really gave us life there. It was also a turning point for Tyson because he watched Jackson just go out and play. I think sometimes at quarterback you run into the risk of not wanting to make those big mistakes. So for him, it was a turning point for his quarterback career.
“(Tyson’s) one of our best athletes. It’s made us a much more complete offense with Jackson moving to quarterback and Tyson contributing in other ways.”
The win streak was capped by a 28-21 victory over Wasco on Friday, clinching the second straight SSL title for the Generals. Sanchez threw for two scores and ran for another in the game.
“I’m just really happy for my boys and for my coaching staff,” Pierucci said. “To go from a 1-4 to a 6-4 just takes so much work by our coaches. And our players never gave up. They continued to learn every week, continued to take their lumps early on and they didn’t stop working hard.
“To be where we are now I think is a testament to the type of kids that we have , and also to my assistant coaches that put in so much time and effort into these boys to get them where they are now. It feels really good. I’m proud of the program right now.”
Ridgeview 55, Independence 7
The Wolf Pack (7-3, 5-0) captured its ninth South Yosemite League championship in the last 10 years with a victory over the Falcons (3-7, 3-2). Justin Hinzo threw for 396 yards and five touchdowns — including four to Alijah Alexander-Williams — on 25 of 29 passing. Alexander-Williams finished with eight receptions for 125 yards. Zion Hall had five catches for 124 yards, including a 58-yard TD reception on Ridgeview's first offensive snap. Jaron Amos ran for 105 yards on 15 carries, scoring one of three rushing touchdowns for the Wolf Pack. Alex Zendejas and Ladon Denmark had the other two. Defensively, Denmark, Donovan Parish and Marquise Casteel each had interceptions.
Friday's high school football scores
Highland 35, East 6
Mira Monte 42, Foothill 12
North 26, South 24
Centennial 13, Frontier 0
Garces 27, Stockdale 13
Liberty 37, Bakersfield 7
Bakersfield Christian 28, Golden Valley 0
Ridgeview 55, Independence 7
West 20, Tehachapi 14
Arvin 24, Taft 13
Chavez 21, Kennedy 17
Shafter 28, Wasco 21
Tulare-Mission Oak 14, Delano 0
Bishop 7, California City 0
Boron 74 Desert 0
Kern Valley 55, Rosamond 0
Reedley-Immanuel 56, McFarland 28
Mojave 51, Lone Pine 8