More than 90 minutes before the Central Grizzlies took a field besides their own, unfamiliar territory for the area’s dominant high school football program of the past half-decade, Kyle Biggs sat on a sideline bench at midfield and spoke hardly a word.
He gazed straight ahead at the opposite sideline, where the San Joaquin Memorial Panthers were to stand hours later.
For the first time since he took the post as Central head football coach in 2016, Biggs and his team were on the road for a Central Section playoff game. They faced an opponent who, like them, won three straight Central Section championships from 2017 to 2019. The enormity of Friday’s Central Section Division-I semifinal grew so large that San Joaquin Memorial capped attendance at 4,000 tickets.
But the Grizzlies, no strangers to big games and big moments, reaffirmed their stranglehold on Division-I football with a 37-20 win over the Panthers of Memorial Friday. No. 3 seed Central (9-1) will host its fifth consecutive Central Section championship game on Friday, Nov. 26 against No. 4 seed Liberty-Bakersfield (9-2), which upset No. 1 Buchanan in their semifinal.
The Grizzlies will play for a fourth straight Division-I crown, a continuation of a dynasty briefly interrupted by the pandemic.
“We’ve been blessed to have really good kids, and that helps,” Biggs said. “We have to play even better than we played today. A few mistakes, we didn’t finish some drives and gave them some chances — we can’t do that against Liberty.”
There was much excitement in the week leading up to Friday’s semifinal, a lot of it focusing on the success of both programs since 2017. The biggest pre-game storyline was the fact that high school football fans waited five years for this matchup to happen.
Central only needed five minutes to take control of the game. Upon receiving a short kickoff, the Grizzlies drove down the field in six plays, the final of which was a 10-yard designed run by quarterback Dayton Tafoya.
San Joaquin Memorial fumbled on its following possession, and Central scored off the turnover with a 30-yard field goal. The Grizzlies, boosted by a large contingent of fans and a loud student section, landed a quick flurry of punches to stun the Panthers and jumped to a 10-0 lead with 4:24 left in the first quarter.
“We had to set a tempo,” Tafoya said. “We really had to go out there and punch them in the mouth, because [Memorial] has not been behind all season. I’m glad we came out and punched them in the mouth.”
The defense shut out Memorial in the first half. Central allowed a couple of big plays but held the Panthers to two short field goal attempts, one which missed wide left and the other which was blocked.
Central extended its lead to 16-0 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Tafoya to running back Jesiah Lindsey with 2:10 left in the half. San Joaquin Memorial responded with a drive all the way down to the Central 7-yard line, but the Grizzlies held firm once again on defense.
Memorial handed the ball off to running back Donovan Harris for a total of five yards. Panthers quarterback Michael Bell threw an incomplete pass as he was tackled by Central defensive lineman Eric DeCarlo.
Finally, on 4th and goal from the 2-yard line, Bell threw an incomplete pass intended for University of Washington commit TJ Hall Jr, who was blanketed in coverage by Central cornerback Imari Conley. Conley was often left on an island defending Hall Jr, and he limited the Panthers’ star receiver to one catch for seven yards in the first half.
The first word that came to Biggs’ mind to describe Central’s defense in the first half — “phenomenal.”
“They gave up a few big plays, they bent a little bit, but they didn’t break,” Biggs said. “They blocked a field goal, got a turnover, got a stop on downs. They played their behinds off and I’m really proud of those guys.”
San Joaquin Memorial needed a spark out of halftime, and it got one from junior running back Brandon Ramirez, who burst through the middle of the Central defense for a 65-yard rushing touchdown.
But any momentum that San Joaquin Memorial gained from the play was lost moments later when Conley returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards for a touchdown, keeping Central at a 16-point lead, 23-7.
Running back Ah’Marion Gaines-Smith added a 4-yard rushing touchdown later in the third quarter. Bell passed for a pair of touchdowns, bringing Memorial within 10 points with 3:55 left, but Lindsey delivered the final score on a 15-yard touchdown run.
Lindsey finished the game with a team-high 103 rushing yards on 16 carries and two total touchdowns. Defensively, Central was led by senior defensive end Jeremiah Shelton (nine tackles and a sack) and linebacker Marcus Ramirez (four tackles, forced fumble, and an interception).
Bell passed for 242 yards and two touchdowns and completed just 42% of his passes in defeat. San Joaquin Memorial turned the ball over four times, three fumbles and an interception, while Central played a turnover-free game. Biggs praised Tafoya for the clean offensive performance; Tafoya completed 9-of-14 passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns, one passing and another rushing, to boot.
“He controlled the offense,” Biggs said. “He commanded it. He got us in the right plays, got us in the right protections, made the right reads, made good throws, and made good decisions. He was the leader today. He’s the reason we are moving on.”
Even on the road, the Grizzlies were in a familiar place Friday night — playing an important game in November. Since Biggs took over at Central, they have gone 13-1 in Central Section playoff games.
The stellar playoff record helps explain why Kyle Biggs sat calm and poised on the bench, long before the game kicked off.
Win a highly anticipated semifinal with everything on the line? Central has been there and done that.
Now the Grizzlies will try to do it again, for the fourth straight time, in the Division-I Central Section championship game.