NORWALK, Calif. — As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
If that’s true, it takes lots of villages to raise a roster full of championship football players, and in that case, there are a whole lot of happy villagers making their way back to Fresno.
The Central Grizzlies finally got the state championship they had been yearning for with a 34-19 win over Sierra Canyon on Friday night in the CIF Division 1-AA Championship, and it was a true community effort. Yes, the stars did their part, in particular Cal-bound wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter, but down the stretch, it was the depth players who made their impact to fight off the Trailblazers. From wide receiver Manuel Oliver-Davis’ lone catch of the night setting up a key insurance touchdown to punter Ruben Rubio, who pinned Sierra Canyon at the four-yard line to set up a game-clinching safety, it was the depth that the Grizzlies have compiled all through their roster that made the difference as they became the first Central Section team to ever beat a Southern California opponent in one of the top two divisions in a state championship game.
The swell of support for Central (15-0) was evident in the stands, where supporters of the orange and black decisively outnumbered the Sierra Canyon fans, even with a trip more than six times farther than that of their opponents.
“It’s definitely a Central thing. Our community is amazing,” head coach Kyle Biggs said. “They come out in full force and support us and cheer for us. I had no doubt they were gonna pack this place.”
Those fans had plenty of reason to cheer from the onset of the game as quarterback Jameson Silva and his top receivers, Hunter, AJ Simpson and Xavier Worthy, all teamed up to put on a show in the first half. Worthy broke free over the middle for a 34-yard touchdown reception, and after Sierra Canyon (14-2) got on the board with a 26-yard Josh Bryan field goal, the Grizzlies needed just two players to answer as Hunter burned every defender in sight for a 65-yard score. In the first half alone, Silva threw for 190 yards on 8-of-16 passing. The Trailblazers showed a remarkable run defense from the game’s opening drive, allowing a total of 55 rushing yards on the night, giving Silva even more work than usual. When Sierra Canyon responded by dialing up blitz after blitz, Silva wasn’t fazed by the constant hits.
“It’s my last game as a senior, and I feel like I owed that to my team,” he said. “I put my body on the line.”
Silva’s journey was an unorthodox one, attending Central as a freshman and returning to rejoin his childhood friends as a senior after spending his sophomore and junior years at nearby Edison. In all, he completed 21 of 39 passes for 353 yards, his first time passing for more than 300 yards in his career, first time attempting more than 30 passes and his second-highest number of completions in a game.
Sierra Canyon closed the deficit to 13-12 as Bryan closed the first half with a 33-yard field goal and Quattro Sumlin found a hole up the middle early in the third, and with the Trailblazers keying in on Hunter, who had five of his seven receptions in the first half, it was up to Silva to spread the ball around. He did just that, with five different receivers catching passes on the ensuing drive as the Grizzlies took an eight-point lead on a five-yard pass to AJ Simpson, who had three catches on the drive and drew a pass interference penalty in the red zone.
“We have a whole bunch of options, so it was just a chance for other people to get touches,” Simpson said of the situation in the second half.
It also helps to have a confident quarterback, and Silva certainly fit the bill. Up 20-12 in the fourth and still throwing the ball as Sierra Canyon’s run defense would hardly give an inch, Silva appeared to get picked off by Kamari Ramsey for the second time on the night but was bailed out by a roughing the passer flag, one that came just two players after a would-be third down sack was wiped out by a facemask. After the second 15-yard penalty of the drive advanced Central into Trailblazer territory, Silva threw to Oliver-Davis for his lone catch of the night, a 36-yard reception to the one.
“Even if we’re facing a 5-Star DB, I don’t care. I’ll take my guys any day,” Silva said.
Je’kob Jones scored a 1-yard touchdown out of the wildcat formation on the next play to make it a two-score game with 8:07 left, but Sierra Canyon wasn’t done just yet. Even after a turnover on downs and an excellent punt by Rubio, who pinned the Southern California representatives at their own 7, the Trailblazers needed just eight plays to cover 93 yards as junior quarterback Chayden Peery completed a 32-yard pass to DJ Harvey, Brendon Gamble crossed midfield on a 16-yard carry, then gained 18 yards on a screen pass. Harvey, a two-way standout with an LSU offer, hauled in another pass for 15 more yards and Peery punched it in from two yards out. Simpson would recover the following onside kick, but the Grizzlies would be forced to punt again after two short runs and an incomplete pass.
That’s where Rubio stole the show. A punter who rarely had to work on a team that averaged 44.2 points per game, he took his moment in the spotlight and made the most of it, pinning Sierra Canyon at the 4. Two plays later, Peery, pressured by Jones, heaved a deep ball more than 15 yards away from the nearest receiver and was called for intentional grounding, a safety that made it a two-score game.
All the Grizzlies had to do from there was pick up a first down to run out the clock, but Jones did more than necessary with a 27-yard touchdown to ice the game, nearly doubling the team’s rushing totals for the night and setting off a massive celebration on a Central side that treated the occasion like a home game with banners, balloons, signs and all sorts of other decorations on their sideline.
It all culminated in a well-deserved state championship for a program that doesn’t fit the standard of the times. In an era dominated by private schools, where most public school teams have to combat thin rosters and rely heavily on two-way players, the Grizzlies rarely had players line up on both sides of the ball, only calling on the likes of Hunter, Jones and Ricky Correia, a defensive lineman by trade who will be joining Hunter at Cal, for special formations.
“It’s a tribute to our coaching staff,” said Biggs, who won his 51st game in four years leading Central. “They do a great job of teaching kids fundamentals and schemes. We try to limit the guys that are going both ways because it wears you down. We want to be fresh and we want to be ready to go at the end of games.”
Able to stay fresh because of their team’s depth, Hunter had seven catches for 120 yards, Simpson had six for 66 and Worthy had four for 47. For the Trailblazers, who lost their second consecutive state championship game, Peery completed 24 of his 43 attempts for 237 yards. Sumlin had 96 rushing yards on nine carries and 44 receiving yards on eight receptions, while Harvey had six catches for 83 yards. Gamble had 46 receiving yards and 37 rushing yards and Drue Watts led the team with nine tackles.