24 hours before their biggest game of the season, the Buchanan Bears prepared mentally and physically for the dogfight ahead of them — a Thursday night battle with the three-time defending Central Section champion Central Grizzlies.
At practice, the Bears locked in on game plans and playbooks. After practice, the focus shifted to other important matters, like tri-tip and macaroni and cheese.
Turns out, preparation can be delicious too.
The 2021 Buchanan football team is “one big family,” as described by quarterback Jayden Mandal. So, after Wednesday’s practice, they gathered at Mandal’s house for team dinner, where the X’s and O’s gave way to food and jokes.
Buchanan’s defense is among the best in the Central Valley. The Bears have offensive playmakers on the perimeter and in the backfield. But above all else, Mandal said, “The best thing about our team is our bond.”
On the eve of a titanic tilt between No. 1 and 2 in the Central Section, Buchanan players channeled their competitiveness into games of cornhole and ping-pong. Head coach Matt Giordano didn’t need to say much about the bigger competition taking place the next day.
After all, the Bears know fully well about the significance of Thursday night and what is potentially on the line against Central — the top seed in Division-I playoffs, the Tri-River Athletic Conference championship, and bragging rights in a rivalry that’s heated up in recent years.
In fact, over the past five seasons, the fight for Central Section football supremacy has often come down to two schools, Buchanan and Central, who have risen in parallel fashion.
Giordano took over the Buchanan program in 2016, the same year that Kyle Biggs became the head coach at Central. Buchanan has won over 75 percent of its games under Giordano, a record of 47-15. Central amassed a 59-6 record in that same timespan under Biggs.
Central and Buchanan played each other six times from 2016 to 2019, including twice in the Central Section championship game, often with future Division-I college football talent on the field.
Each meeting became more anticipated than the previous as the rivalry grew, but six straight ended with the same result — a Central win.
Buchanan needed a game-winning 17-yard field goal as time expired to finally vanquish Central and its run of league dominance on March 26 this year. The 31-28 win helped Buchanan finish the shortened spring season undefeated as TRAC champions.
Motivated by the loss, Central adopted a new mantra this season, “Coming for what is ours,” referring to the team’s goals of regaining the TRAC title, competing for a Central Section championship, and earning Valley-wide respect as the area’s premier football team.
How both teams have fared this year:
With a perfect 5-0 record and key wins over Edison-Stockton and Clovis High, Central holds the No. 1 ranking in the Central Section, according to CalPreps. Buchanan is right behind them at No. 2, sitting at 5-1 with only a home loss to state-ranked Los Alamitos.
Central junior quarterback Dayton Tafoya has passed for 1,093 yards with 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. Tafoya’s passing attack is complemented by an explosive running game that averages seven yards per carry. Seniors Jesiah Lindsey (442 rushing yards, 4 TD) and Ah’marion Gaines-Smith (253 rushing yards, 4 TD) provide a one-two punch for the Grizzlies.
Central’s offense struggled in the red zone last Friday against Clovis High, a defense that changed looks against Tafoya. If Buchanan’s defense (currently the top defense in the TRAC) does the same and Central can’t adjust, then the Grizzlies will again struggle to sustain drives.
On the other hand, Central played well defensively against Clovis High last week. The pass rush is led by co-sacks leaders Amarian Hunter and All-State defensive end Jeremiah Shelton, both of whom have 2.5 sacks.
Senior linebacker Marcus Ramriez easily leads Central with 43 tackles. Junior cornerback Imari Conley has the third-most tackles (26) while leading the team with three interceptions. He also ran back the game-winning 97-yard kickoff return against Clovis High.
Buchanan’s offense may be missing its engine in starting running back Caden Rodgers. Coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for most of last week’s game against Clovis West, Rodgers is a game-time decision. The senior has scored 11 total touchdowns so far this season and provides value on defense as a linebacker too.
Junior Michael Runnels will start if Rodgers can’t go. Runnels has carved out his own role in the running and passing game even when Rodgers is healthy.
Josiah Ayon, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior wideout, is Mandal’s biggest target in the passing game. Ayon hauled in six touchdown catches in six games.
Lastly, in an interesting twist to Thursday’s game, Ayon, Mandal, and Tafoya train together outside of school. Mandal and Tafoya even have the same quarterback coach. The trio have looked forward to playing each other in a rivalry game for quite a while.
“It’s going to be fun playing against Jayden and Josiah,” Tafoya said. “Since June, this is all we have talked about, whether we are at training or texting.”