It’s been a season of historic firsts for the Mission Oak football program.
The Hawks captured their first outright East Yosemite League championship.
They posted their first 10-0 regular season.
They produced their first 2,000-yard single-season and 5,000-yard career rusher in senior Elijah Porchia.
They earned their first No. 1 Central Section playoff seed, and also their first No. 1 Tulare County ranking (and on the verge of making the best argument for Tulare County supremacy in 2013).
And with last week’s 47-7 semifinal win over Wasco — which also served as a statement for very serious Southern California regional bowl game consideration — the Hawks obtained the rights for hosting a Central Section title game, marking the first time Mission Oak has ever been the home team for a section final in any sport.
The Hawks are clamoring for one more first — the school’s first Central Section championship in any sport.
Top-seeded Mission Oak (12-0) hosts No. 3 Bakersfield Christian (10-2) in the Central Section Division IV championship game Friday night at Bob Mathias Stadium. Game starts at 7 p.m.
“It’s exciting. It’s like playing our very first game; kind of overwhelming,” Mission Oak senior defensive tackle Michael Webster said.
Just the idea that Mission Oak would be in this position just five years after opening its doors for the first time is remarkable.
This was a football program that had very, very modest beginnings.
In its first varsity game in 2009, Mission Oak had all kinds of trouble running a simple kneel-down play in order to limit the damage in a 66-0 loss to the Lindsay Cardinals.
Mission Oak lost its first three varsity games by a combined 173-0 score.
Now the Hawks are on the brink of winning a Central Section championship, and perhaps becoming the first Tulare County team to reach a level many thought would take a “once-in-a-generation” team to achieve — a CIF Southern California regional bowl game.
For someone who has been there from the start, how does it feel to be in this position?
“Blessed,” Mission Oak coach Mark Gambini said. “The coaches that I have worked with and the administration at this school has made it easier. This could not have happened without them. There’s been a lot of hard work that has gone into this.
“To the [former Mission Oak] players, I have to to thank them. They helped start this thing off and went through some tough times to build this program.”
How Gambini directed this rise to Central Section prominence has nothing to do with gadgety, up-tempo offenses or relying on superior athletic talent.
He did it the old-fashioned way — designing a hard-nosed and disciplined defense.
“Defense has always been where my heart lies,” Gambini said.
Gambini led Central Valley Christian to three straight Central Section titles (2003-05) by building dominating defenses. In its back-to-back 13-0 seasons in 2003 and 2004, CVC allowed an average of 6.6 points and 8,1 points, respectively.
He carried that defensive blueprint over to Mission Oak when he started the program in 2008.
Fast forward five years, and Mission Oak is now the gold standard for defensive play in Tulare County.
The Hawks have recorded three shutouts, just one opponent has scored more than 20 points, and only three teams have scored against the Mission Oak defense during the first half of 12 games.
No team in the section has allowed less points than the Hawks (94). And most of the points that opponents have scored against the Hawks have occurred when the game was already in hand — and decided by a large margin.
What’s the secret formula?
“We trust each other,” Mission Oak senior defensive end Nick Lewis said. “We know we’re going to get our job done.”
But technically, what grand scheme is behind this prowess?
“I’m not trying to make this sound too simple, because it isn’t, but we just line them up and train them hard throughout the year,” Gambini said. “A lot of coaches will try to come up with different crazy schemes or formations. We’re not about all that. We’re going to be in the right place, hopefully, and play fast.”
If there is a secret weapon to this defense of Gambini’s, it’s the consistent stream of game-defining plays that are produced. Gambini’s CVC defenses were known for its interceptions, forced fumbles, and the same is happening at Mission Oak.
“We do stress forcing turnovers in practice,” Gambini said. “We just drill them and drill them on forcing turnovers. Play in your right spots, play fast, and get to the ball.”
This is Gambini’s sixth trip to a Central Section championship game in the last decade (three as head coach at CVC, two as an assistant coach at El Diamante made up his previous five appearances since 2003), and while it may seem he has the “golden touch”, Gambini knows the long, hard road that his players have had to make to reach this point.
“I appreciate the dedication, their hard work and the sacrifices they’ve made,” Gambini said of this year’s team. “It’s not always easy. There’s a lot of sacrifices that go into a team like this. There are days I’m sure that they would have loved to stay home [during the summer] and not think about football, but they didn’t. They kept working, and I’m thankful to them for that. Very fortunate to have this group. We just need to continue to battle hard.”
And the Hawks know the significance of a Central Section championship plaque to the school as a whole.
“That would mean everything,” Webster said. “To come back here 20 years from now and say that we were the first team to do this would be pretty special.”
Mission Oak softball played in the school’s first section title game in 2011. The Mission Oak girls soccer and boys basketball teams came agonizing close to section championships earlier this year (both teams lost in the section finals after obtaining late leads).
“I just want to win after all the hard work we put in,” Lewis said. “Hopefully it will pay off.”