The Buchanan Bears secured their second consecutive outright Tri-River Athletic Conference football title Friday by following the formula that guided them throughout the season — dominating defense and a family-like brand of football.
The Bears forced three turnovers, including two interceptions made by senior safety Harrison Kalpakoff, and picked up big plays from multiple offensive starters in a 28-10 win over the Clovis East Timberwolves.
Buchanan (9-1, 5-0 TRAC) won its second league title in the calendar year and locked up the No. 1 seed in the Central Section Division-I playoffs. Clovis East (4-4, 0-3 TRAC) lost its fourth straight game after starting the season 4-0. The Timberwolves await their seeding in the Division-II bracket, expected to be announced Saturday afternoon.
When the Bears won the TRAC in the spring, it was special to them for multiple reasons; the title came after a lengthy COVID pause to the season, and it was Buchanan’s first outright league title in 12 years.
They only had to wait six months for the next one. Buchanan head coach Matt Giordano said this fall’s TRAC title is just as sweet.
“Bottom line, I’m thankful for both,” Giordano said. “There were a lot of people who worked their tails off to accomplish that first one… I’ll have special memories for both of them. I can just say this — I’m thankful to be a part of two TRAC champion teams, but like I told the team, we have to learn from this and we’re not done yet.”
Without injured starter Jayden Mandal at quarterback, junior Colton O’Toole stepped in for the second straight game. The Bears’ offense struggled to move the ball at times but created enough big plays to find the scoreboard.
Buchanan scored first when O’Toole kept the read-option handoff, bolted up the middle, and broke a tackle on his way to a 12-yard touchdown run with 2:27 left in the first quarter.
Clovis East responded with a long drive down to Buchanan’s 14-yard line. Faced with 4th-and-4 in the red zone, the Timberwolves settled for a 31-yard field goal to cut Buchanan’s lead to 7-3.
On their next drive, the Bears stared at their own fourth down decision, a 4th-and-9 from the Clovis East 33-yard line. Buchanan went for it, and O’Toole found wide receiver Brody Bendowski for a 20-yard gain and first down.
Two plays later, Buchanan senior running back Caden Rodgers plunged forward for a 1-yard touchdown run.
Momentum fully swung to Buchanan on the next two plays after that — Kalpakoff grabbed his first interception, and senior receiver Josiah Ayon scored a 38-yard rushing touchdown to give Buchanan a 21-3 lead with 4:12 left in the second quarter.
Buchanan did not find the end zone again until the fourth quarter, when junior running back Michael Runnels broke off Buchanan’s second-longest play from scrimmage, a 29-yard touchdown run.
The defense did its part in the win, holding Clovis East without a touchdown until Lamaj Travis scored a 1-yard touchdown run with 4:39 left in the game. Travis finished with a successful day on the ground — 20 carries, 119 yards, and a touchdown.
Clovis East placed more emphasis on the running game Friday after it played more pass-oriented in a 41-14 loss to Clovis High last week.
“I wanted to see us get physical,” said Clovis East head coach Ryan Reynolds. “Last week was important for me to remind myself of who we are because we got away from it… We need to be physical first above all things, so we tried today to come out and do that. We knew [Buchanan] was physical as heck.”
With both sides taking pride in their hard-nosed style of play, the second half turned into a defensive, grind-it-out battle.
“Our motto is, we don’t care if we win 56-0 or 56-55 or 3-0,” Giordano said. “As long as the Bears win, that’s all that matters. Our offense, they were stuck in the mud for a couple series. Our special teams and defense had to make plays and I’m proud of our guys stepping up.”
The Bears played team football in its TRAC-clinching victory and as a team, they conspired to give their head coach a chilly message of gratitude.
Buchanan senior Gavin Nelson spent the past two hours opening lanes for his running backs and fighting on the defensive line, but in a moment with the game already decided, all he wanted to do was drench Giordano with a Gatorade tub full of ice water.
Giordano dodged the attempt on the field, but there was another Gatorade shower waiting for him in the locker room.
“He tried to get away again and he’s really fast,” O’Toole said, “We got his legs. We didn’t get him that good, but we got him.”
Even the former NFL safety could not escape the cold reward of a Tri-River Athletic Conference championship. However, a much bigger prize lies ahead of the Buchanan Bears next month — a Central Section championship.
“I’m just excited to see what we can do in the playoffs,” Nelson said. “Back-to-back TRAC titles feels great, and this team is even closer than last spring. I didn’t think that was possible.”