Four Questions about the Four Division-I Teams from the TRAC

Buchanan players celebrate winning the TRAC league championship on Oct. 29, 2021. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)

The Central Section Division-I football playoffs start Friday, and this year’s edition may feature as even of a playing field as any in recent memory.

Over the past four playoffs, from 2016 to 2019, the Central High Grizzlies were the dominant forces in Central California prep football. Four seasons ended in four straight No. 1 seeds, and four Central Section championship games were played at Koligian Stadium.

But not this year.

The title game might still be played in Koligian — but only if there is an upset of the No. 1 Buchanan Bears before then. The road to a Central Section championship runs through Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis, California, home of the 9-1 Bears. 

However, Buchanan is awaiting the return of a key piece to the best team in the Section. Quarterback Jayden Mandal suffered a high ankle sprain during practice on Oct. 20 and missed the Bears’ last two games, against Clovis North and Clovis East.

Buchanan still won both games, 33-14 and 28-10 respectively, but the leadership and experience of the junior was missing from an offense that did not perform to its full potential.

The Bears are the best team in the section, but that doesn’t mean that they are not vulnerable to an upset in the playoffs if their star quarterback remains out. Still, Buchanan is not the only team with question marks. Here is the biggest question about every TRAC team in the D-I playoffs.

Buchanan – Quarterback play

Let’s start by saying winning any game in the TRAC is not easy, so fill-in quarterback Colton O’Toole deserves much credit for leading Buchanan to two wins in Mandal’s absence. Yet it is hard to deny Mandal is a talented quarterback who improves Buchanan’s chance to win it all.

Buchanan preaches a team mentality and there is something to be said about that. The defense is arguably the best in the Central Section, and the running back combination of Michael Runnels and Caden Rodgers stacks up well against anyone. This makes Buchanan still the favorite, but the gap is closer than it ever has been.

Central – Offensive consistency

It was what Central head coach Kyle Biggs talked about in the preseason; if the Grizzlies are able to consistently string together scoring drives, they are unstoppable. There were 51-32 and 59-20 wins over Bullard and Bakersfield to prove such. However, when the offense finds itself in a rut and can’t get going, as was the case in the 7-1 Grizzlies’ only loss of the season at Buchanan, then there is reason for concern with this Central squad. 

Consistency with this team has been the biggest worry, but there is no doubt the motivation to become more consistent is there for Central, a team undoubtedly motivated by the No. 3 seed they received for playoffs. The Grizzlies will host Hanford on Friday.

Clovis – Discipline and distractions

On paper, there is no reason why the Clovis High Cougars should not be in the conversation for a Central Section championship. There is Division-I talent in quarterback Nate Johnson and cornerback/wide receiver Carlos Mack, headed to the University of Utah and Oregon State, respectively. Then there is the best running back in the history of Clovis High School, Tristan Risley.

So, why are the Cougars the No. 5 seed with a 7-3 record and facing a daunting playoff run with potential road trips to Liberty in Bakersfield, Buchanan, and San Joaquin Memorial or Central?

It has been a season full of distractions and misfortune — a game with multiple offensive and defensive starters out against Ridgeview, a frustrating loss against Bullard where the offense gained over 500 yards, a loss to Central where the game-winning touchdown was a kickoff return that was fumbled, and another loss against Buchanan where head coach Rich Hammond was not on the sideline.

The good thing for Clovis High is that it has a senior class dreaming for this moment since they teamed up at Clark Intermediate. That type of camaraderie mixed with talent could yield the first Section championship in Hammond’s decade-long tenure.

Clovis North – Big plays 

Clovis North proved all of the doubters wrong with its resurgent 5-5 season after a winless, 3-game spring season. The Broncos did it against a stiff schedule too, facing a gauntlet in the TRAC as well as state-ranked Edison of Huntington Beach and fellow D-I team San Joaquin Memorial.

They won their games with the tried-and-true formula of physical running and stout defense. Clovis North saw great production from its stable of running backs, and the defense proved opportunistic with a penchant for creating turnovers.

However, with the lack of a consistent passing offense, Clovis North will need to pull off multiple big plays to have a shot at upsetting No. 1 Buchanan. Look for track/football two-sport star Jake Parnagian to provide the electricity in an offense that provides a punch with its run game.

Gabriel Camarillo has written for the Clovis Roundup since August 2019 and follows high school athletics, Fresno State football and former Clovis Unified student-athletes. Gabe also writes for The Collegian as a staff sports writer and works at One Putt Broadcasting as a board op for 940 ESPN radio.