In Clash of Top-ranked Teams, Buchanan Defense Shines in Win over Central

Buchanan running back Michael Runnels finds a hole in the defense during the Bears’ 24-17 win over Central. Runnels returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. (Gabe Camarillo/Clovis Roundup)

Buchanan head coach Matt Giordano won’t call it the best defense he’s ever coached yet; he said there are still three more regular-season games and Central Section playoffs to decide that.

But in eight games against perennial Section power Central, have Giordano’s Bears put together a defensive performance quite like the one Thursday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium?

It’s hard to argue against that. Buchanan forced three first-half turnovers, intercepted Central quarterback Dayton Tafoya three times, and held firm on a pivotal 4th-and-goal in the fourth quarter. Buchanan defensive end Drew Washburn sacked Tafoya with 34 seconds remaining, ending Central’s last hopes of a comeback and sealing a 24-17 victory for the Bears.

Buchanan (6-1, 2-0 TRAC) won its second straight game over Central (5-1, 1-1 TRAC) after losing six straight to the Grizzlies before that.

The theme of past Buchanan-Central games was offense; both teams have fielded future Division-I college talent on that side of the ball. There were high-scoring games, often with Central coming out on top. As talented as Buchanan was, its rise as a football program coincided with Central’s, who seemed to be a little quicker and made more explosive plays.

Even after Buchanan’s 31-28 win in the spring, the Grizzlies lamented that there were no playoffs to exact revenge. They saw Thursday night as a chance to “take back what was theirs” and re-establish themselves as top dog in the Central Section.

It took approximately 18 seconds to see Buchanan had fully closed the gap.

Michael Runnels received the opening kickoff, weaved his way through a sea of blue and white, and fell head-first into the endzone for a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown.

Central countered instantly with a four-minute scoring drive capped by Ah’marion Gaines-Smith’s 4-yard touchdown run.

Buchanan safety Harrison Kalpakoff ended Central’s next drive with an interception, and the Bears scored off the turnover. Jayden Mandal found Travis Sirwet open on a crossing route for a 33-yard touchdown pass with 33 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Once again, Central responded with a game-tying 33-yard touchdown run from Jesiah Lindsey. It felt like past Buchanan-Central shootouts, where whichever team had the ball last would win.

It turned out the opposite, as both defenses settled in and played well in the second half. After Rocky Reyes kicked a 25-yard field goal, giving Buchanan a 17-14 halftime lead, Central allowed just one more score, a Mandal 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Buchanan’s defense, however, performed better under adverse circumstances. Starting middle linebacker Caden Rodgers did not play a single defensive snap due to an ankle injury and Tait Warsing, who played junior varsity in the spring, filled the role.

“Tait stepped up tremendously,” said linebacker Logan Studt. “The kid transferred here from Texas last year, played JV in the spring, but when I saw him in the summer, I knew he was going to be something special. When Rodgers said he was out, we knew Tait would start and he had a hell of a game.”

The Bears handled adverse in-game situations as well. Once Central closed the gap to 24-17 on a field goal, they recovered an onside kick. The Grizzlies clawed their way to the doorstep of tying the game, reaching Buchanan’s 1-yard line and running its heavy set onto the field.

The heavy goal-line set scored a touchdown earlier for Central. However, bad breaks came on back-to-back plays — Gaines-Smith suffered a cramp after falling short on 3rd & 1 and left the field, and Central false-started on 4th and 1.

With Central pushed back to 4th and goal from the 6-yard line, Buchanan defensive end Gavin Nelson wrapped up Tafoya for no gain.

“Not going to lie, things weren’t going our way right there, and we just had to fight through it,” said Buchanan safety Jerry Rangel. “They had all of the momentum toward them, and we went out there and stuck it to them on the next play.”

The critical 4th down stop came with 8:40 left in the game and served as a massive missed opportunity for Central.

“If Gaines is in there, he probably walks into the end zone,” said Central head coach Kyle Biggs. “We didn’t make the play and they did. That’s what it came down to.”

Central still had two more chances to tie the game. Kaleb Tennison intercepted a Mandal pass, bringing the Grizzlies’ offense back on the field, but Buchanan returned the favor with an interception by safety Kannon Campbell.

A former NFL safety, Giordano appreciated the solid play of his secondary, which came away with three interceptions from Kalpakoff, Campbell, and Robert Johnson.

“They understand the importance of communication and doing their job,” Giordano said. “They come to work with their hard hat every single day. When you have kids who are humble like [Kalpakoff, Campbell, and Johnson] and coaches who work hard with them, good things are going to happen.”

The Grizzlies had one more shot to tie the game when Buchanan’s 18-yard field goal attempt was blocked with 1:10 remaining. Yet Central could not move past midfield against a Buchanan defense that turned in a dominant fourth quarter performance.

Where does this defense rank among those of Buchanan’s past? The jury is still out, according to Giordano.

“I think it’s a very, very, very good defense,” Giordano said. “Why I don’t say they’re the best yet is because there’s still room to grow. But I’ll tell you this — they’re hungry to play defense every Friday night, and I’m excited about that.”

There was a lot of excitement surrounding Thursday’s game and emotions ran high in a rivalry game with playoff seeding, bragging rights, and potentially the league championship on the line. Biggs, before the game, said there was “no love lost” between the two teams.

“They came in talking a little trash and we responded with our play,” Mandal said.

If Buchanan and Central meet again in November for a playoff battle, the trash talk, excitement and rivalry will be ratcheted up to another level.

“In order to win a championship, you have to beat us twice or somebody twice along the way,” Biggs said. “We know we’ll see them again and we’ll be ready for them.”

Next week, Buchanan plays Clovis High at Lamonica Stadium and Central hosts Clovis East.

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.