In a showdown of two undefeated football teams, Shafter had a little too much firepower Friday night.
The visiting Generals capitalized on a handful of Golden Valley mistakes and controlled the game with a powerful run game and a physical, opportunistic defense en route to a 41-14 victory.
Shafter junior quarterback Tyson Dozhier ran for two touchdowns and threw for another, and junior fullback Walker Maino rushed for 108 yards and two scores to lead the way for the Generals (5-0), who outscored their opponents 233-29 this abbreviated season.
“I think that just shows you the complete team that we had this year and it’s a shame we only get to play five games,” Shafter head coach Jerald Pierucci said. “But it is what it is and we were able to give a finality this week to our guys. We saw the seniors staying late, getting there early, just enjoying the process. And I think that was a better send off than even getting one more game. They got to really truly enjoy the last week.”
The Generals season finale got off to a strong start when they forced the Bulldogs (4-1) to punt and then drove 61 yards on nine plays on their opening possession to take a 7-0 lead on a two-yard run by Dozhier, who finished with 57 yards rushing on 20 carries on an otherwise quiet night throwing the ball.
After throwing 17 touchdown passes in his first three games, Dozhier and his Shafter teammates have flexed their collective muscles on the ground the past two weeks.
On Friday, the Generals' three-headed attack of Dozhier, Maino and junior tailback Elijha Lucero combined for 267 yards rushing. Dozhier was just 7 of 15 passing for 70 yards, but his 12-yard scoring pass to Cameron Huerta gave his team a 13-6 lead with 8:51 left in the first half. The touchdown was set up by a 46-yard kickoff return by Huerta that brought the ball deep into Bulldog territory.
The score was the first of what turned out to be several momentum shifts that kept Golden Valley in check, with the Generals’ defense often getting things started.
Huerta’s long run-back came after Bulldogs tailback Iziah Coronado broke off a 43-yard touchdown run to cut Shafter’s lead to 7-6 just one minute into the second quarter.
Another Golden Valley mistake helped Shafter pad its lead following a botched punt attempt, when Coronado’s knee hit the ground following a low snap, giving the Generals the ball at the Golden Valley 13. Three plays later, Dozhier got outside and scored on a 5-yard run to make it 21-6 with 7:05 left in the second quarter.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said Maino, a transfer from Taft who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds. “There’s nothing that can describe it. It’s a great feeling, but at the same time it’s a little sad because we’re saying good-bye to so many big parts of our team. The seniors played a big role and were a huge part of this team. Without them, it’s not going to be the same next year.”
Maino scored on a 1-yard plunge to build Shafter’s lead to 27-6 with 4:06 left in the third quarter, but Golden Valley responded with a 51-yard touchdown run by Coronado and pulled within 27-14 when Bulldogs quarterback Marquel Bruley connected with Rickardo Marlon Smart Jr. on a two-point conversion.
Golden Valley looked to move closer when it forced the Generals to punt and moved the ball to the Shafter 32. But Bruley fumbled on a sack by Colby Miller and the Generals scored two more touchdowns in the final minutes to put the game out of reach.
“I think offense always drives (things),” Pierucci said. “We always want more scoring, but our heartbeat and our spine is our defense. And it’s been since I’ve been here. Those kids play hard, and they play hard for each other. They truly are the all-stars of our team.”
Maino finished a 13-play, 59-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with 3:10 to play, and when Golden Valley fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Lucero capped the scoring with an 11-yard TD run. Lucero finished with 100 yards on 14 carries.
“The defense has always been the backbone for us,” Golden Valley coach James Cain said. “They held us together when things were tough. And they did it again tonight. Unfortunately, offensively we kind of sputtered. They’re a great defensive team and aggressive group. We had to make some moves up front because of some necessary reasons, some injuries or whatever else, and just offensively we didn’t do enough to capitalize on the opportunities our defense gave us at the right time.
“So to play a team like that, that is so explosive on offense and the type of players they have, and to hold them for as long as we held them for so long, I couldn’t ask any more from my team. They held on as long as they could, but at the very end there, you have to take your hats off to Shafter. They’re a good ballclub, so good job by them, as well.”
Despite suffering his first loss of the season, Cain said he is happy with the progress his program made this season.
“It was a great season for these guys,” Bulldogs coach James Cain said. “To go from not having a season to being blessed to have a season and an opportunity to compete. For my seniors, I’m so happy for them, but then the whole group, I’m just proud of them.
“We had about 16 guys from last year’s team that were still standing when the dust settled. So when all 16 of those guys came back, and they got this opportunity, I was excited for them and they led the way for this 4-1 season. From going 1-9, I’m just proud of them and I appreciate them. I’m going to be grateful for them forever because the change is coming and it started with this group this year. I told them they’ll always have a place here and whenever they come to a game on a Friday night, and see the success that we’re having going forward, I want them to take some credit for that. Because they started the way.”
Pierucci was equally as proud of his group, especially considering the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic created the past several months.
“I think … you know sports are so important to kids,” Pierucci said. “They teach them about life and football is like no other sport. And for me, I think watching these kids go through hope and then crushed, and hope and then crushed. And then to see how they persevered through that. Because there’s a lot of people that would have said I’m done. And there’s a lot of kids who said they’re done. But these guys, my senior class and my juniors, they kept believing and I think it’s a testament to what this program has become and how much it means to them.
“And to see them come out and do what they did this year is just a testament to the men they are going to become. Because life slapped them around this last year, and to be able to come back and rally the way they did is really special.”