Central junior Imari Conley told himself one thing as the Clovis Cougars, who took a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter moments earlier, kicked the ball directly to him.
Conley told himself, “I have to score.”
He fielded the kickoff at his own 3-yard line, backed up to the 1, and took off running, as he put it, “like my life depended on it.”
At one point during the kickoff return, a Cougar knocked the ball from Conley’s hands. The football hit the turf, bounced straight into the air and right back into Conley’s grip, who never broke stride in his 97-yard kickoff return touchdown to give the Central Grizzlies a 27-20 win over Clovis Friday night.
What a moment for Conley’s first career return touchdown, coming with 3:50 left in a back-and-forth battle between two Central Section football heavyweights.
The Grizzlies (5-0, 1-0 TRAC) entered the matchup ranked No. 1 in the section and the Cougars (4-2, 0-1 TRAC) No. 4, according to CalPreps.
“It was a dogfight,” said Central head coach Kyle Biggs. “On offense, we shot ourselves in the foot. Clovis High did a lot of good things on defense, moving guys around and changing some things up and never being consistent. Offensively, we just couldn’t finish drives.”
Central quarterback Dayton Tafoya completed 20-of-35 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, both to wide receiver Ladanian Streets. Tafoya connected with Streets for a 30-yard touchdown pass on Central’s opening drive, but the Grizzlies did not score another touchdown until the 6:30 mark in the fourth quarter.
Facing an offense averaging 45 points per game, Clovis’ defense limited Central to 17 offensive points.
“The key for us defensively was defending our side of the 50-yard line,” said Clovis head coach Rich Hammond. “Central got theirs in the passing game, but not in the big variety. I thought it was the best defense we’ve played so far this year. We did a great job not giving up big plays in the open field and tightening down inside the red zone.”
The difference in the game, however, was ten points surrendered by Clovis on special teams.
Two came on a safety after Central junior Caleb Shelton blocked a punt through the end zone in the second quarter. The block came right before halftime and gave the Grizzlies a 12-7 lead.
Then, there was Conley’s go-ahead return touchdown, scored right after Clovis took the lead on a 19-yard Tristan Risley rushing touchdown.
“We’ve covered kicks well this year, and we covered kicks well during the game,” Hammond said. “He caught the ball literally at the one-inch line, almost in the end zone… The thing that’s funky about that situation is when the ball hits the ground, everyone stops and begins to redirect themselves instead of keeping their angles. It’s human nature. That created the crease that [Conley] needed to score.”
Central made its final stop with 46 seconds remaining when senior linebacker Ah’marion Gaines-Smith tackled Risley short of the first down marker on 4th & 5.
Risley rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. Clovis quarterback and Utah commit Nate Johnson rushed for 109 yards on 12 carries, including a 45-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Johnson also completed 10-of-16 passes for 146 yards and an interception.
Clovis hosts Clovis North on Friday, Oct. 8, while Central faces a big test at Buchanan on Thursday.