Following a 16-month layoff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wasco High football team was hungry to get back on the field.
But due to several scheduling conflicts, the Tigers’ had to settle for little more than a snack.
Just three weeks into an already abbreviated schedule, Wasco’s football season is over following a 12-8 loss to Tulare Western on Thursday. The Tigers lost to Templeton and Tulare Union the previous two weeks.
With Kern High School District schools choosing to only play each other, and neighboring administrators in Delano, Taft and Tehachapi opting not to play this year, the Tigers were unable to find enough opponents to fill out their schedule once restrictions were lifted in February.
“With Kern High doing their own thing, Delano opting out, you know it really put us in a bind in terms of finding games,” fourth-year Wasco football coach Chad Martinez said. “We called anybody and everybody, and to be honest, I don’t think we would have even got Tulare Union and Tulare Western if Porterville hadn’t dropped out, as well. Because it was that tough. Everyone had games and nobody wanted to play against us.”
About the same time the Tigers squared off at Templeton in their season opener on March 19, school administrators were able to pick up games at Tulare Union and Tulare Western for the next two weeks when Porterville opted not to play.
“We didn’t get those until probably a week before we played, probably early March is when we picked up (those games), pretty much right after Porterville announced (it wasn’t playing this season), leaving both those schools without anyone to play those weeks,” Martinez said. “So it kind of helped us out a lot, otherwise we would have only had the one game.”
Following a 39-22 loss to Templeton, Wasco had very little time to prepare for Tulare Union, Martinez said, and it showed in a 53-7 loss.
“In a normal season we would knock off some of that rust before we faced teams like Templeton and Tulare Union, but with everything being so compressed, we were kind of learning on the fly in a sense,” Martinez said. “And we went through some growing pains those first two games.”
But in Thursday’s season finale, the Tigers showed signs of playing at a more recognizable level, Martinez said.
“Against Western it was like, ‘OK, I can hang with the speed (of the game),’” Martinez said. “And what our defense is trying to accomplish. What our offense is trying to get done. So it was kind of good in the sense that we made some major mistakes in those first two games, and in the third one, we came in locked in.”
Elias Salinas scored a first-half touchdown for Wasco (0-3), which limited Tulare Western to 51 yards in the first half. Andre Cordova had two interceptions and Ralphy Gonzales added 14 tackles, including four for a loss. Mark Rangel also had a sack.
But the Mustangs responded in the second half, pulled to within 8-6 on a touchdown of their own, and was in position late in the game after forcing Wasco to punt with less than 3 minutes to play.
On Tulare Western’s final drive, which started around midfield, Martinez’s emotions were taken on a rollercoaster ride. On a third-down play, the Tigers made an apparent game-saving interception, but the receiver was ruled to be already down. Later, as the final seconds were ticking off, a Mustangs runner was tackled near the sideline, and appeared to Martinez to be inbounds. But the runner was ruled to have stepped out of bounds, giving Tulare Western one more play with 2 seconds left. It was all the Mustangs needed. They scored the game-winning touchdown on a short pass as time expired for a dramatic 12-8 victory.
“It was energetic on the sidelines (after those plays), for sure," Martinez said. "But honestly, as much as I hate losing, it was a perfect play call from an offensive standpoint."
As disappointing as the loss was at the time, Martinez is able to put things in perspective, and is happy for the experience, however short.
“It was super cool to be able to send the seniors out like this,” Martinez said. “It was the first class that I’ve seen from freshmen to seniors. So it was nice to see them go out in the fashion that they did. Even though it was a short season, it was still something where they got a chance to play. They were my first class that I feel like I kind of groomed to be what I call the Wasco way. Although it was short, they were glad that they got a chance to play and to compete.”