From the moment the football was kicked off, the Clovis High Cougars knew they were in for a battle against the host Liberty Patriots of Bakersfield Friday night.
Senior cornerback and wide receiver Jason Oliver, who is being courted by colleges such as Fresno State, Boise State, and Cal, returned the opening kickoff deep into Clovis territory.
Four plays later, junior running back Jalen Hankins burst through the right side for a five-yard touchdown run. It was a swift and decisive message from the Patriots, who played six of their nine regular season games on the road — there is no place like home.
Hankins finished the game with four rushing touchdowns in the Patriots’ 45-35 victory, sending No. 4 seeded Liberty to the CIF Central Section semifinal round and ending the season of No. 5 Clovis.
“We had only three games this year at home, so to get a home game for the playoffs was a bonus for us and the kids were very excited about it,” said Liberty head coach Bryan Nixon. “We knew Clovis was a good football team, so we knew we had to come ready to play.”
Clovis High absorbed the first punch and countered with its longest play from scrimmage — an 89-yard touchdown run from senior quarterback Nate Johnson through the teeth of the Liberty defense. His track and field speed was on full display as he outran a Liberty cornerback that started in front of him but ended in pursuit behind him.
The brief 7-7 tie did not last long as Liberty quarterback Carson Woods connected with wide receiver Luke Wattenbarger for a 52-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The play included several missed tackles by Clovis, an issue that plagued the Cougars all night on defense.
Clovis closed the gap with a one-yard touchdown plunge from Clovis running back Tristan Risley, but the ensuing PAT was blocked. Liberty kicker Dylan Lynch tacked on a 36-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 17-13 lead into halftime.
The first half was physical and back-and-forth. Clovis suffered miscues in giving up the long touchdown pass, but other than that, the defense forced Liberty to punt twice.
It was a different story after halftime
As much as Clovis scored, and it scored points aplenty, the defense was unable to stop Liberty’s rushing attack, especially in the second half when the Patriots scored touchdowns on all but one drive.
“The difference at the end of the day is, they had shorter fields and they executed,” said Clovis head coach Rich Hammond. “We couldn’t stop them from running in the second half… [Hankins] is a good player. Obviously, he was the No. 1 priority to take away because he’s a good player.”
After Clovis took a 20-17 lead on a 57-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Risley with 10:27 left in the third quarter, Liberty scored three straight touchdowns, all on runs.
Woods scored on a four-yard scoring run, and Hankins found the end zone from 17 and eight yards out.
Clovis interrupted the Liberty scoring run with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to wide receiver Carlos Mack, which, after a successful two-point conversion, cut the Patriots’ lead to 38-28 with 9:48 remaining.
But any remaining glimmer of hope was wiped away by the ensuing 66-yard kickoff return that set up Hankins’ final rushing touchdown from 3 yards out.
“We were able to run the football successfully and that’s something we pride ourselves on,” Nixon said. “Week in and week out, Hankins plays his tail off. He’s a three-way starter for us, special teams, defense, and offense. He plays just as hard as he practices, so it’s fun to watch.”
Johnson, who is headed to the University of Utah next fall, added his fourth total touchdown of the game with 54 seconds left, a 10-yard scoring pass to junior Jaden Carrillo.
Johnson, Risley, and Mack were among 24 seniors who played their final game in a Clovis High uniform Friday. All of them huddled together in front of Hammond after the game, reflecting on what transpired during the two hours prior as well as the games and seasons before then.
“As a senior group, the guys did great things during the season, accomplished records and all those sorts of things,” Hammond said. “I have a ton of pride in the heart and effort and energy that they played with, so I’ve got nothing to say but praise for them.”
Clovis finishes the season with a 7-4 record and has now lost in the quarterfinal round for five straight playoffs. Liberty (8-2) will travel to Veterans Memorial Stadium next Friday for a semifinal rematch of the past two playoffs against No. 1 seed Buchanan.