Liberty head coach Bryan Nixon could not believe it at first.
The Liberty High Patriots had just vanquished the Clovis High Cougars on home soil. By then, word spread throughout the stadium that the top-seeded football team in the Central Section awaited them in the semifinals — the Buchanan High Bears.
Nixon had no problem believing who his opponent was, but he could not believe how familiar they were in this spot.
Was it really going to be three straight times that the mighty Patriots of Bakersfield traveled up Highway 99 to Clovis and faced the Bears in a semifinal?
It took some convincing, a rundown of the previous two semifinal battles against the Bears, but Nixon eventually realized that Friday’s game at No. 1 Buchanan will be the third chapter of a playoff trilogy.
“You’re right, there you have it,” Nixon said with a slightly amused chuckle. “Buchanan is always a solid football team, and we know that going in. They’re a physical football team, and we’re going to have to be physical. We have to watch film and get ready.”
The makings of a rubber match
Physicality was on full display in the teams’ first semifinal meeting in 2018. Liberty came in led by senior Sam Stewart Jr., a two-way star at running back and middle linebacker. Buchanan had its own sturdy running back, future Georgia Bulldog and then-junior Kendall Milton.
Milton was one of several future Division-I college athletes on that year’s Buchanan team. There was Fresno State star receiver Jalen Cropper, Stanford baseball star Brock Jones, Fresno State linebacker Tanner Blount, and former Fresno State safety C.J. Jones. Even the starting kicker Race Mahlum turned into a five-star recruit who eventually landed at the University of Oregon.
Buchanan drove down to Bakersfield earlier that season and defeated Liberty, 28-13, behind a second-half comeback. The Bears were favorites in the semifinal as a result, and they led 21-20 with 1:44 left after Mahlum drilled the go-ahead field goal.
Milton punished the Patriots to the tune of 20 carries for 195 yards and one long rushing touchdown. It was redemption for Milton, who mustered two yards on six carries in the first game against Liberty.
But Liberty had its own workhorse, and Stewart had the best game of his high school football career on that cold November night in Clovis — 36 carries, 244 yards, and two touchdowns. Stewart and the Patriots drove down the field to give sophomore kicker Brayden Blevins a chance at a game-winning 26-yard field goal.
Blevins sent the ball through the uprights as time expired. Liberty delivered the upset — and the first blow of the trilogy.
Buchanan got its revenge twice in 2019, in another come-from-behind, 19-17 win during the regular season, and a 27-0 shutout in the semifinal round.
Liberty battled through injury issues in the 2019 playoffs and that included at quarterback. Junior Haden Mann missed the quarterfinal and semifinal, and then-sophomore quarterback Carson Woods stepped in for his first two career varsity starts. He played well in a quarterfinal win over Clovis West, but against Buchanan, he completed just 4-of-11 passes for 35 yards and two interceptions.
His counterpart, Buchanan quarterback Ian Kirby threw for 298 yards on 10-of-17 passing and opened the game with an 87-yard touchdown pass to Darrien Gaines. It was flat-out domination by Buchanan, and one Liberty Patriot on the field that night remembers it all too well.
Jason Oliver, a sophomore do-it-all athlete back in 2019, gave a quick answer when asked if he looked forward to Friday’s semifinal.
“Yes,” Oliver said emphatically. “Time for payback for two years ago. Yup. I’ll always remember it.”
Buchanan evened the score, in terms of semifinal meetings, in 2019. There were no playoffs last fall for the Bears and Patriots to battle in, but with the return of playoffs this fall brings the renewal of a rivalry featuring lots of red, white, and blue.
Buchanan and Liberty played each other plenty of times before their first semifinal meeting in 2018. In fact, they played annually from 2010 to 2019 in the regular season; Liberty went 8-4 against Buchanan in the decade, including a seven-game winning streak from 2011 to 2016 with a playoff win sprinkled in there.
Nixon has been at the helm of Liberty football since 2013. He remembers the Patriots’ past two semifinals against Buchanan well, but he doesn’t want to dwell too much on either the win or loss.
“That’s in the past,” Nixon said. “We have to watch film this weekend and get ready to go for Friday.”
Liberty has size and eyes to win it all
Liberty is commonly referred to in Central Section football circles as a wild card, largely because they have not played in Fresno in two years. There are traits well-known about previous Liberty teams, though, that fit this year’s Patriots well.
They are physically strong up front on both sides of the ball; 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior Grant Buckey (No. 72) is the difference-maker in this area. He stands out from teammates during warmups with his size, just like he stands out from his peers on the field. Buckey has received scholarship offers from seven Division-I colleges including Stanford, Cal, Michigan, and Washington. He doubles as an offensive tackle and defensive end but is being recruited as the latter.
Buckey lines up at left tackle, next to left guard Xavier Campos (6-foot-3, 260 pounds). On the other side of the offensive line is right guard Christian Gretlein (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) and the unit is held together by senior center Shay Achen. This group can move bodies and open holes for speedy junior running back Jalen Hankins to burst through.
The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Hankins might not physically resemble the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Stewart, but he may provide just as big of a headache for Buchanan. Hankins is a versatile playmaker to watch for the Patriots. He leads the team with 910 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, and like Stewart, Hankins gets it done on defense too. As a cornerback, Hankins has three interceptions on the year, tied for the team lead.
Speaking of two-way superstars, senior Jason Oliver is a threat at wide receiver, cornerback, and kick and punt returner. Oliver has blossomed into a three-star recruit with scholarship offers from Fresno State, Boise State, and Cal among six other Division-I colleges.
Oliver has been the favorite target of senior quarterback Carson Woods, totaling 621 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games. Woods himself looks much improved from the last time he faced Buchanan. His throws are crisp and accurate; he has completed 67% of his passes this year for 1,590 yards and 16 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
Liberty is not a team of no-names; with two Division-I football prospects, an experienced and disciplined senior quarterback, and a talented, hard-nosed running back, the Patriots have star power aplenty. However, they win as a team and do not need one star to stand out. Just like in 2018, Liberty will need a Stewart-type player just as much as it will need a Blevins-type (speaking of kickers, Liberty might have the best two in the Central Section with senior Dylan Lynch and junior Grant Meadors).
Can Buchanan fire on offense?
Buchanan is the same way, built by a similar mindset of playing team-oriented, physical football. The perfect example came when junior quarterback Jayden Mandal went down with a high ankle sprain during practice on Oct. 20. A potentially devastating injury galvanized the team as they rallied behind Colton O’Toole.
O’Toole went 3-0 as the starting quarterback, including a win over Clovis North last Friday in a quarterfinal win. He didn’t finish that game, however. O’Toole exited the game after a big hit at the end of the third quarter and Mandal, three weeks and two days removed from the injury, came in.
The score was 14-3 at that point. The final score ended up as 35-3 with help of a defensive touchdown.
It remains to be seen if Mandal has fully recovered from the ankle injury and if his mobility, a key part of his game, is limited. There is potential for a big comeback performance from Mandal against a Liberty defense that struggled in its last two games.
In last week’s quarterfinal loss to Liberty, Clovis High still managed to score 35 points and gained 524 yards of total offense. The week before, Bakersfield High scored 23 points and totaled 519 yards of offense. The similarity in both of those games — big plays.
Bakersfield running back Tybo Rogers scored on a 68-yard touchdown run and 80-yard touchdown reception. Clovis quarterback Nate Johnson scored on an 89-yard touchdown run and threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Tristan Risley. The Patriots’ defense, which allowed just 9.9 points per game over its first eight contests, has been gashed twice in the past three weeks.
Buchanan can capitalize on a reeling defense with the bruising rushing attack of Caden Rodgers and the explosive running game of Michael Runnels. Along with the two running backs, wide receiver Josiah Ayon is another key part of the Buchanan offense and has potential for a big game as Mandal’s favorite target.
Why Liberty will win:
The Patriots are road warriors, having played six of their nine regular season games on the road. They scheduled tough out-of-section games against Clayton Valley Charter and Bishop Diego on the road, and even in defeat, they held their own. Those early challenges against physical, run-heavy teams like Buchanan will help prepare the defense, and the offense will ride a third straight 100-yard game from Hankins to the Central Section championship game. Woods must take care of the football in any situation where Liberty wins.
Why Buchanan will win:
It looked like Mandal never left when he took over in the fourth quarter of last Friday’s game. The offense marched down the field with ease against Clovis North, one of the better defenses in the Section. If Mandal continues to improve in health and regain some of his mobility, then the offense will only get better. Then, there is the defense that has been much talked about; Buchanan has been proficient in forcing turnovers and turning opponents’ red zone trips into field goals instead of touchdowns.
Can you still not believe these two schools are meeting once again with a spot in the Central Section championship game on the line?
Believe it — Liberty will take on Buchanan at Veterans Memorial Stadium on Friday, November 19th at 7 p.m.