In big games, big-time players step up.
And for Buchanan it wasn’t just two or three or even four or five, but it was a slew of Bears who pounded on the ground and ball-hawked on defense, withstanding a fired up Clovis West squad in the second half en route to a 30-28 victory over the Golden Eagles to advance to the D-I Valley championship game against No. 1 seed Central.
Senior Trevor Ervin (24 carries for 204 yards) and sophomore Kendall Milton (26 for 225) combined for incredible 429 yards on the ground for No. 3 Buchanan, building a four touchdown lead late in the first half while four different Bears picked off Dante Chachere passes to prevent the No. 2 Golden Eagles (9-3) from moving on.
“This is awesome, this is the dream,” Ervin said, who scored on runs of 32 and 56 yards in the first half. “We have a goal to win a Valley championship, especially with this group of seniors.”
With the win, Buchanan now has a chance to repay its only two losses, the other being a thrilling 28-27 setback to Central (11-1) on Oct. 5. The Grizzlies toppled Bakersfield 35-27 in the other semifinal at home, avenging last year’s Valley final.
“That’s who we wanted to play,” Ervin said of Central. “Once we saw the brackets come out for playoffs we were excited because that would give us the opportunity to beat the two teams that beat us during the season. We are extremely excited for it.”
Milton scored on an explosive 64-yard touchdown run just one minute and 35 seconds into the first quarter and scored again on a 15-yard touchdown run with 1:49 left in the half, seemingly placing Buchanan (10-2) in control of the game at 27-0.
However, it wouldn’t be easy the rest of the way after Rodney Wright III sparked life into Clovis West, getting loose after taking a short pass from Chachere for a 59-yard touchdown with 59 seconds left in the half.
“The plan was to not let Rodney Wright get loose on us and we contained him at the beginning,” Buchanan head coach Matt Giordano said. “But all he needs is one play, and that’s what tells you what type of an athlete he is.”
And on cue, Clovis West came out fired up in the second half and two plays after a Dusty Schramm fumble recovery on Buchanan’s first drive at the 19-yard line, Chachere found Wright for a 3-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 27-14.
The Golden Eagles’ momentum continued to gain steam after the Bears shot themselves in the foot after a thwarted fake punt from their own 35-yard line. Moments later, a 19-yard touchdown catch by Nick Coleman from Chachere with 1:19 left in the third quarter made it 27-21.
But Buchanan dug deep for its most important drive of the season, an 11-play drive that started on its own 11-yard line (after a booming 59-yard punt from Eli Riofrio) chewed up four minutes and 34 seconds of important clock, capped off by a 37-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Rece Mahlum, making the score 30-21 with 2:17 left in the game.
“I did,” Giordano said when asked if he saw flashbacks to their 36-17 league loss to Clovis West that saw Buchanan get outscored 33-3 in the second half. “I tried to tell them at halftime that they were going to come back and fight. I’m so proud of our coaches and players – they kept their poise and didn’t panic.”
Wright would score his third touchdown of the game on a 3-yard run, cutting the lead to 30-28 with 1:38 left in the game, but Buchanan would recover the ensuing onside kick to secure the victory.
“It got a little scary at the end,” junior safety Brock Jones said, who along with McCade Gleason, Luke Malloy and Keenan Wolf recorded interceptions. “But I trust my teammates and I have their backs and they have my back. That’s how it works.”
In a season that saw Clovis West lose quarterback Adrian Martinez, who holds 27 Division I offers, to a preseason shoulder surgery, and combined with Boise State linebacker commit Dusty Schramm’s shoulder surgery a month ago, the Golden Eagles were still two points away from playing in the Valley championship game.
“This is a special group and we always knew they played hard and they showed it tonight,” said fourth-year Clovis West head coach George Petrissans. “They couldn’t overcome some coaching errors and emotions, and there are times I didn’t put them in position to be successful – I feel for them for that. They gave everything they had.”