Tears dripped like icicles onto the turf at Koligian Stadium on a cold night while the scoreboard in the distance stood frozen: Home 29, Visitors 7, a bitter conclusion for the Buchanan Bears in the Valley Championship football game against Central.
The tears and sobs signaled the end of a season filled with so much hope and achievement after a mighty football matchup between Valley titans.
About 30 minutes after the final horn sounded, senior Trevor Ervin sat in the field house in all his gear, not willing to let go of the dream, knowing this was the last time he’d ever wear “Buchanan” across his wide chest.
“What really hurts is that this is my last game with my brothers,” he thought.
Buchanan knew, as did most of the 7,000 loud and raucous fans that filled Central’s home stadium, that if the Bears were to capture their first football section title since 2000 they would need to make extraordinary and timely plays on the San Joaquin Valley’s biggest and brightest stage.
Standing in the way of Buchanan’s first Valley title since 2000 was a ravenous Grizzly team, dressed in orange and black that seemed to have destiny on its side as much as talent, with an 87-year title drought hovering over it like a Tulare fog. Central had come oh-so-close over the years and tonight, at last, was its night.
Alas, those championship-level plays never surfaced for Buchanan.
Central (12-1) responded boldly and with methodical precision, a year after experiencing heartbreak on its own turf when it lost to Bakersfield 21-14 in the title game. The major players leading the Grizzlies were quarterback Trent Tompkins, running back Jevon Bigelow and a stout defense led by Jacob Hollins, Tre Walker and Marcus Washington that bottled up standout Bear running backs Ervin and Kendall Milton, holding them to a combined 65 yards on 22 carries.
And how great were Ervin and Milton all season long before the championship game? Ervin amassed 1,341 yards on the ground, a 9.7 yards per carry average and 19 touchdowns. Sophomore sensation Milton rushed for 1,468 yards, 8.7 yards per carry and 23 scores.
They found no breathing room, save for a 26-yard scamper by Milton, who was hobbled all game with a tight hamstring, in the third quarter.
“You have to tip your hat to Central, they made plays and tonight we couldn’t,” said Buchanan coach Matt Giordano, a former standout on that 2000 Bears title team and an 8-year NFL veteran. “We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds, whether it was blown assignments or penalties. You have to make sure you’re on your ‘A’ game, especially in a game against Central on a stage like this.”
Buchanan (10-3) stood firm in the first half, only down 7-0 after a 36-yard touchdown pass from Central’s Tompkins to a wide open Tyrell Grayson with 23 seconds left in the first quarter.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Bigelow ran for 12-yard touchdown and followed it up with another 12-yarder with 3 seconds remaining for a commanding 20-0 lead.
Buchanan scored its only points on a Ty Hall 49-yard touchdown pass to Cornell Washington with 10:42 left in the game. Hall would finish completing 11 of 27 passes for 149 yards.
Tompkins, a modern day Houdini with the football who escaped the clutches of Bear tacklers all evening, sealed the victory with a 2-yard keeper with 3:40 left, a now insurmountable 29-7 lead.
The game seemed a far cry from when the two league rivals met on Oct. 5, a thrilling 28-27 Central win at Veterans Memorial Stadium when Tompkins threw a game-winning 19-yard touchdown with under a minute to play.
And for every heartbreaking loss there’s immense joy on the flip side, the yin and yang of sports.
For every agony of defeat there’s the thrill of victory.
“This is the best feeling in the world, especially after losing last year,” said Tompkins, who threw an interception in the red zone in last year’s game in the waning minutes of the 21-14 loss to Bakersfield. “We did it for all the former Grizzlies and did it for Coach Garza.”
Tompkins is referring to Justin Garza, the beloved former Central coach from 2012-14 who passed away after a six-year battle from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February of this year at the age of 41.
The Grizzlies continue their postseason run Friday when they go on the road to take on a 14-0 Folsom team in the Division I-AA state playoffs.
Meanwhile, after the game as the euphoria of Central’s celebration was still riding high on the west side of the stadium, the Bears gathered at the 20-yard line on the south side and took a knee one last time, facing their coach as reality set in, their cold winter breath panting in and out.
“I told them I loved them and I was proud of them,” Giordano said, as gracious in defeat as in victory. “No matter what the score was, one thing we cannot deny is that they fought all the way to the end. That shows their character and heart.”
Sports Editor Paul Meadors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @paulmeadors