Headed into the 2021 fall high school football season, it was expected that three teams would rise above the rest in the Tri-River Athletic Conference and prove themselves as legitimate Central Section title contenders.
Three weeks have passed and nothing has changed.
The Roundup’s preseason No. 1 ranked Clovis High raced to a 3-0 start and displayed remarkable depth in its latest triumph over Ridgeview. Buchanan returned the breakout star of the spring season, quarterback Jayden Mandal, and a slew of defensive starters, helping the Bears dominate their way to a 3-0 record as well. Central’s offense scored plenty of points in its 2-0 start and looked like the Trent Thompkins-led offenses of past Grizzly championship teams.
Is there any way to truly distinguish who is the best of the bunch? Not until they settle it on the field when TRAC play begins next month.
Until then, here are five takeaways from the first three weeks of the season, as well as a quick preview of each Week 3 TRAC matchup and the latest Clovis Roundup power rankings.
COVID leaves its mark all over the season
It’s no secret that COVID-19 and bad air have turned the high school football season upside down so far. At least eight matchups were cancelled in Week 0, and cancellations or postponements have become a seemingly normal occurrence throughout the first three weeks. This has created some bizarre scenarios, such as the one Clovis West found itself in Week 1.
Redwood cancelled its game against Clovis West due to multiple Ranger players entering health and safety protocol. Then Damonte Ranch, a team from Reno, Nevada, suddenly found themselves without a game as its opponent, Central, cancelled their matchup due to perceived threats against the school.
Clovis West and Damonte Ranch contacted each other and with former Golden Eagle Kendall Brock on the Damonte Ranch coaching staff, it was a match made in heaven. Hours after agreeing to a game, the two teams played on Clovis West’s varsity practice field on campus and made the most of a strange situation.
Something even stranger happened to another TRAC team a week later.
Clovis High traveled to Ridgeview last Friday missing at least 10 players due to health and safety protocol. The list of missing players included star quarterback Nate Johnson and multiple offensive and defensive line starters. According to head coach Rich Hammond, players auditioned to be the kicker in the parking lot pregame as sophomore quarterback Jackson Kloster prepared for his first taste of high school football.
Considering the adversity Clovis faced leading up to kickoff, what happened next was the Cougars’ most impressive win of the young season.
Kloster passed for 121 yards and three touchdowns before halftime as Clovis built a 24-0 lead. The Cougars completed the defensive shutout, 40-0. After an uneven showing in its 34-14 win over Bakersfield the week prior, Clovis showed remarkable depth without Johnson and other starters and, most importantly in the age of COVID, an ability to adapt to the unexpected.
Buchanan Bear defense roars
Buchanan’s success is due to more than its defense, but it’s hard to ignore a unit that has delivered back-to-back shutouts. One of the shutouts came against Bullard, a team that boasts Division-I talent (see: Fresno State commit Jayden Davis) and scored 32 points on Central in Week 0. The other shutout was on the road against Paso Robles last Thursday, 48-0.
Buchanan lost multiple offensive starters from last spring’s TRAC championship team but returned almost everyone on defense. The Bears’ shutdown secondary features two All-TRAC selections from the spring (safety Jerry “Chubo” Rangel and cornerback Robert Johnson), as well as cornerback Zeke Swayne, son of former NFL wide receiver Kevin. Swayne grew eight inches in the past year to stand at 5-foot-11.
Their linebackers have been stout, led by super sophomore Logan Studt and a pair of two-way star seniors, Josiah Ayon and Caden Rodgers. Ayon opened the season with a bang at wide receiver, collecting seven catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns at Kingsburg. Meanwhile at running back, Rodgers has rushed for 305 yards and scored seven touchdowns in three games. He’s also recorded 27 tackles.
The defensive line of Gavin Nelson, Levi Little, Roman Fries, and Evan Washburn has done its job up front. The point is, not one part of the defense stands out, but all three levels have worked together to allow only one touchdown this season, a late score by Kingsburg with the Bears leading 33-0. The defense has stayed true to head coach Matt Giordano’s team-oriented “next man up” philosophy.
Buchanan has outscored its first three opponents, 108-7, and developed an offensive identity predicated on the running game with Rodgers and junior Michael Runnels and the big-play passing game spearheaded by Mandal. The junior quarterback has tossed eight touchdown passes, tied with Central’s Dayton Tafoya for best in the TRAC. Five of Mandal’s scoring strikes have gone for 25 yards or more.
Buchanan, currently ranked No. 1 in the section by CalPreps and No. 20 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports, will face a big test in state No. 9 Los Alamitos on Friday.
Central offense returning to championship form
Joining Clovis (No. 17) and Buchanan in the Cal-Hi Sports state rankings is Central (No. 25). Two years removed from the 2019 state championship, the Grizzlies have shown in two games that their offense under new quarterback Tafoya hasn’t lost a step.
After Tafoya threw five touchdowns in a 51-point explosion against Bullard, Central took a week off and traveled to Bakersfield last Friday. There, the Grizzlies dropped 59 points and leaned more on its explosive running game. Central rushed for 270 yards against the Drillers, and running backs Ah’marion Gaines-Smith (8 rushes, 136 yards, TD) and Jesiah Lindsey (8 rushes, 84 yards, TD) averaged over 10 yards per carry.
Granted, Bakersfield (0-3) has struggled defensively this season, surrendering 65 points to Los Alamitos in its season opener. Don’t let that take away from the talent and depth of Central’s offense, which looks more like the attack that led to three straight Section championships. A key game to watch will be Central at Buchanan on Oct. 7, a meeting between the conference’s best offense and defense.
Central faces a solid test Friday against a 3-0 Edison-Stockton team ranked No. 3 in the Sac-Joaquin Section by CalPreps. The Grizzlies wrap up non-conference play next week vs. Ridgeview.
Freshman Miller impresses for East
Clovis East has started with a 2-0 record for the third straight season, a run the school has not achieved since the Tim Murphy glory days of 2004-06.
Unlike those mid-2000s seasons, the past two years have ended with a losing record for the Timberwolves. Yet there’s renewed optimism that Clovis East can flip the script behind freshman quarterback Ty Miller.
Miller rushed for about 175 yards in the season opener, a 33-30 win over Dinuba. Then he led a 34-0 shutout of Atwater that ended at halftime due to poor air quality. In the game, he threw two touchdowns to senior wide receiver Maddox Merlo.
Before the season started, fifth-year head coach Ryan Reynolds praised Miller as a hard worker in practice and mature beyond his freshman status. Whether he helps end Clovis East’s streak of 12 straight losing seasons depends on how he fares during the rest of non-conference play.
Clovis East plays Heritage-Brentwood in the Honor Bowl on Saturday, an intriguing matchup against Devon Rivers, the talented brother of Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers. Following that is a pair of home games against winless Tulare Union and rival Sanger. If the Timberwolves get at least two more wins in non-conference play and grab a win in the TRAC, then they will reach .500 for the regular season and, depending on how they perform in playoffs, end the losing-season streak.
For a rebuilding Clovis East program, that milestone would be huge.
Clovis West rebuild in good shape
One of the most important ingredients to rebuilding a traditionally successful football program is a good coaching staff. So, Clovis West head coach Eric Brown went out and added three former head coaches to his staff this summer.
The early returns are promising. After a 21-point loss at Garces, Clovis West won back-to-back games against Damonte Ranch and Edison-Fresno, and they defeated both teams without any one player standing out. Instead, it’s been a pair of team victories for a head coach who talks to his team about maintaining a family mentality.
There are signs of future stars. Sophomore Marshel Sanders caught a touchdown in both wins while starting at cornerback. Both Golden Eagle quarterbacks, junior Ryan Markarian and sophomore Tyler Patrick, have proven themselves capable of leading the offense. Another sophomore, Jordan Pierro, is seeing a lot of targets and showing potential as a No. 1 wide receiver.
The Class of 2024 is shaping up to be a special one for Clovis West. As for this year, the Golden Eagles have already matched their win total from 2018 and are two-thirds of the way to matching their 2019 total too.
Clovis West’s next game against Bullard will be a good measuring stick for where it stands in the Central Section. The Knights lost by 19 to Central and by 27 to Buchanan, but they defeated Turlock last week for their first win. Clovis West also plays Turlock next week.
Stat of the day:
The Tri-River Athletic Conference went 5-0 in Week 2 of high school football action. Clovis East did not play:
Central def. Bakersfield, 59-20
Clovis North def. El Diamante, 48-7
Clovis West def. Edison, 31-28
Clovis def. Ridgeview, 40-0
Buchanan def. Paso Robles, 48-0
Week 3 TRAC schedule:
Rankings according to CalPreps, not Clovis Roundup Power Rankings
Thursday, Sept. 9:
No. 9 Bullard (1-2) at No. 14 Clovis West (2-1), 7 p.m., Veterans Memorial Stadium
The skinny: Bullard has talent on its roster and comes off a comeback win over Turlock. Will that be enough to take down a Clovis West squad building momentum?
Friday, Sept. 10:
No. 15 Clovis North (1-2) at Edison-Fresno (0-2), 7 p.m.
The skinny: Clovis North’s defense has been a revelation so far. It matches up against an Edison offense fueled by RB Rasheed Norman and WR/CB Charles Bailey.
Whitney (2-1) at No. 3 Clovis (3-0), 7 p.m., Lamonica Stadium
The skinny: All eyes will be on Clovis RB Tristan RIsley, who is 33 yards away from breaking the school’s all-time rushing record.
No. 2 Central (2-0) at No. 3 (SJS) Edison-Stockton (3-0)
The skinny: Ranked third in the Sac-Joaquin Section, Edison-Stockton presents the biggest challenge Central has faced so far this season.
No. 6 (SS) Los Alamitos (3-0) at No. 1 Buchanan (3-0), 6:30 p.m., Veterans Memorial Stadium
The skinny: Ranked sixth in the Southern Section, Los Alamitos is led by five-star Oklahoma commit QB Malachi Nelson. An entertaining battle between Nelson and the stout Buchanan defense will ensue.
Saturday, Sept. 11:
Heritage (1-1) at Clovis East (2-0), 12 p.m., Brentwood, CA
The skinny: Taking part in the 2021 Honor Bowl, Clovis East will try for its first 3-0 start since 2006, the last year the Timberwolves won a Valley championship.
Clovis Roundup Power Rankings — WEEK 4
- Buchanan (3-0)
- Clovis (3-0)
- Central (2-0)
- Liberty-Bakersfield (3-0)
- San Joaquin Memorial (2-0)
- Garces (2-1)
- Centennial (3-0)
- Frontier (2-1)
- Bullard (1-2)
- Clovis East (2-0)