The Hilmar football team doesn’t mind being labeled the underdogs heading into today’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 championship game against Central Catholic.
The Yellowjackets have a lot of respect for the defending state champions.
“Absolutely,” said Hilmar head coach Frank Marques, whose team comes in with a 13-0 record. “They’re quite a team. Central Catholic is really good.”
The Yellowjackets understand they’re going to have to play well, but they don’t believe they’re playing the role of David against Goliath, even with the giants the Raiders have on their offensive line. With players like quarterback Jonathan O’Brien, linebacker Joseph Bello and receiver Tyler Robinson, Hilmar feels it has more weapons than a sling-shot and a rock.
“We believe we belong in this game,” Marques said. “I don’t think we’re overmatched. I don’t think we’re going to be pushovers. We didn’t win 13 games by accident. If we play well and they play well, it’s going to be a great game.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Lincoln High in Stockton.
“You have to do a lot of things right in any sport to be undefeated,” said Central Catholic head coach Roger Canepa. “Especially in football. They have a great defense. A great kicker. On offense their quarterback is very good. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I don’t ever recall going 13-0.”
A win by either team will likely result in a NorCal Bowl bid. The Raiders are ranked No. 1 in CalHiSports’ NorCal Division 4 bowl rankings. Hilmar would likely earn a spot in the Division 3 game against the winner of the North Coast Section championship game between Marin Catholic of Kentfield (12-0) and El Cerrito (11-2).
“There hasn’t been a lot of talk about the NorCal games,” Marques said. “It’s all irrelevant if we don’t win. We’re worried about Central Catholic. That’s enough to worry about.”
The Raiders have had the tough task of meeting lofty expectations the year after winning a state championship. Central Catholic has gone 12-1, winning a Western Athletic Conference along the way, to put itself back in position for another potential run to Carson.
The Raiders have won their three playoff games by a combined score of 170-34.
“I’ll give this team credit, they’ve done a great job of just looking straight ahead,” Canepa said. “When you play at Central Catholic you’re always going to have a bull’s eye on you. Everyone wants to beat the state champ. You’re getting everyone’s best.”
The Raiders have been led by a massive offensive line led by returning starters Spencer Stark (6-foot-2, 325 pounds) and Ivan Swalve (6-3, 235). The five starting linemen average 6-foot-2, 253 pounds.
The line has helped pave the way for running back Matt Ringer to run for 2,017 yards and 31 touchdowns.
“It’s great going into games knowing our guys up front have been through it, done it and seen it,” Canepa said. “You win games at the line of scrimmage. We’ve had teams stack the box against us and our guys have still done a good job of getting a body on a body and moving people around.”
Meanwhile, Hilmar has been led by its defense. The Yellowjackets have grinded out three tough playoff wins over Liberty Ranch, Escalon and Center, twice coming back from halftime deficits.
The Yellowjackets defense is giving up less than 10 points a game. What Hilmar lacks in size it makes up with speed.
“They’re the toughest team we’ve played,” O’Brien said. “They’re in the section title game for a reason. We’re going to have to play a near flawless game. We’re capable of doing it. The Ripon game is an example of it. Both teams came in 7-0 and in the first half we were rolling offensively and defensively. We possess the ability to do that. We just have to extract that from us on Saturday.”