The game that has been a defining force on the Tulare sports landscape for the past 50 years takes center stage Friday night at Bob Mathias Stadium.
Tulare Western (7-2) and Tulare Union (5-4) meet in the 50th edition of the Bell Game Friday at Bob Mathias Stadium. Game time is 6:30 p.m. Gates open at 5 p.m.
“The Bell Game is always exciting. One of the things that I’ve learned over the last year, is that [the Bell Game] is about the kids. This is something really special for both teams to play in the 50th Bell Game,” Tulare Union coach Darren Bennett said. “This is game that both teams are going to remember for the rest of their lives. You want to make this game memorable. You don’t want to go to a class reunion 10 or 20 years down the road having any regrets about this game. You want to make this something you’ll [fondly] remember.
“Playing in any Bell Game is huge deal for the kids. Most players get to play in one or two of these games, maybe three if you’re really special. But to play in the 50th, that’s something else. That’s a really neat deal.”
If you’re looking for historic Bell Game matchups, you really couldn’t ask for too much more than what will be on the gridiron Friday night.
For the first time since 2004, the East Yosemite League championship is on the line for both teams, which marked the last time Tulare Western won the league crown.
All three Tulare schools enter this week with 3-1 league records. Mission Oak (7-2) will share the EYL crown with the Bell Game winner if it defeats Delano (3-6, 0-4) today at Bob Mathias Stadium.
“This is a big game for our program,” Tulare Western coach Ryan Rocha said. “This is a game for the EYL title, for the city title, something we haven’t won since there’s been three schools in Tulare, and for the Bell. Every season we set out with three main goals: Win Valley, win league and win city. We can knock out two out of the three on Friday. That’s exciting. Plus, it’s the 50th Bell Game. It doesn’t get better than that.”
‘Ring it twice’
Rocha was determined to hit the reset button when he took over the Tulare Western football program after the 2012 season.
He was going to introduce Mustang Football 2.0.
The days of what the Mustangs did in a Bell Game defining the whole season were done. Rocha wants Tulare Western’s success to be determined by the championships it wins. And two years removed from an 0-10 season, the Mustangs will claim an EYL championship for the first time since 2004, and just their second league title since 1988.
This might be the beginning of several Tulare Western EYL championships in football over the foreseeable future.
Tulare Western has won at least seven games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-01. The future of the program appears to be in great hands with a very promising freshman class. Tulare Western has two freshmen on varsity, and the freshman team entered this week 8-1, its only loss was to Bakersfield.
“Winning changes a lot of things, especially the attitude, and we were able to start that last year,” Rocha said. “I was tired of hearing how all the players in Tulare are going to the other schools. When you win, and when you have some exciting things with your program, and when you do things right, that’s the best recruiting you can do for your program. If you win, you will take care of business. That’s always been my philosophy.
“I don’t want to learn of how kids are leaving our part of the district to go to school someplace else to play football. You will play a good brand of football here at Tulare Western, and I think you’re seeing that message get across with people now.”
No message would be more profound in the city of Tulare than a Bell Game win coupled with an EYL crown.
“There’s been a saying going around campus the last few weeks, ‘ring it twice’, meaning to win the Bell Game again,” Rocha said. “That’s not something Tulare Western has accomplished too much. We want to make that happen.”
Tulare Western hasn’t won back-to-back Bell Games since it won four straight from 1991-94.
Tulare Union has enjoyed great success in the Bell Game over the years (35-14 record). But in terms of making a statement about the program’s prosperity, there have only been a few opportunities where this contest has served as a pulpit of sorts for the Redskins.
The last time was probably in 1995, Bennett’s first year as Tulare Union’s head coach. The Redskins entered that game having lost the last four Bell Games. Before that skid, Tulare Union never lost more than two straight Bell Games.
Tulare Union won 36-0 in 1995, and the Redskins went on to win 14 of the next 17 Bell Games with three Central Section championships during that span (1999, 2000, 2008).
The Redskins enter Friday’s game on the bottom of the Tulare ladder. If they fall to the Mustangs on Friday, this will mark the second straight year that they went 0-2 against Mission Oak and Tulare Western.
The last thing Tulare Union wants to be remember for this season is being the third-best team in Tulare.
The Redskins obviously have Central Section Division II title aspirations for this year, but they are considered more realistic in 2015 when they might be Tulare County’s best hope for a section title and a spot in a regional championship game.
“It might be a statement game for us, not only for the remainder of this season, but for next year as well,” Bennett said. “This team has an opportunity to show what it is capable of over the next two seasons. We’re not looking past this year, but we return almost everybody next year and we want to build some momentum.
“The big thing [for Friday] is that we have an opportunity to win a league championship. The Bell Game is another story line to get where we want to be. If we play well, we can a league championship, and get this young team ready for the playoffs. The biggest thing for me is to see how these young kids react to adversity. I want to see how they bounce back from last week.”
Keys to the Game
Be a defensive menace: The Mustangs are at their best when they’re making game-defining plays with their defensive unit. Tulare Western has recorded 72 tackles for loss, led by junior Andy Acosta and senior Drew Muller with 12 and 10 tackles for loss, respectively. The Mustangs have forced 19 fumbles (recovered 17 of them) and picked off seven passes (Daniel Martinho and Louis Early each have two interceptions). If they can instill some doubt into some key Tulare Union offensive players, the Mustangs could be in for a banner night. Martinho, a senior, is the spark plug to the unit when it comes to big plays. He has nine passes defended, and forced five fumbles. Tulare Western becomes the significant favorite if it wins the turnover battle.
Aggressive offensive game plan: Tulare Union’s major on-field concern is its ability to stop opposing offenses from reeling off big plays, which means the Mustangs should take their shots down field with senior quarterback Kobe Portillo (1,831 yards passing, 18 TDs, 98.5 passer rating) and a deep corps of receivers — Jordan Padilla (38 receptions, 598 yards, 8 TDs), Jesse Macias (31 catches, 307 yards) and Rudy Vasquez (28 catches, 470 yards, 5 TDs). Mason Bernardo is one of the more promising future stars in Tulare County, but the freshman running back can’t be expected to be at that same production level of Tulare Union’s Romello Harris. Mustangs must count on Portillo and Company to make their fair share of plays.
Special edge: Not too many teams in Tulare County can rely on a kicking game to salvage crucial points on drives that could end fruitless if teams don’t convert a fourth-down play once they reach the opponents’ 20-yard line. Tulare Union will almost assuredly go for it on fourth down every time it reaches the opponents’ 35. Tulare Western doesn’t have to, and the reason is junior place-kicker Cameron Horsting. Since Sept. 6, Horsting is 5-of-5 on field-goal attempts, including nailing a 42-yarder in a 25-18 win over Mission Oak on Oct. 24. This game may come down to which offense is the most efficient in the red zone. If both teams find themselves facing 4th-and-long red-zone scenarios, Tulare Western is the better bet to come up with points based on Horsting’s proficiency.
Confidence in passing game: There may not be a better barometer to the Redskins’ offensive success than the numbers produced by sophomore quarterback Josh Guerrero. In the Redskins’ five wins, Guerrero has thrown for 888 yards and 11 touchdowns with an NFL-formula passer rating of 96.6. In three Redskin losses (Guerrero did not play against Dinuba), his passer efficiency rating drops to 75.7, as his completion rate falls from 65.0 in wins to 48.2. He missed on all six attempts during the second half of last week’s loss to Mission Oak, a game in which the Redskins were facing a 21-point deficit early in the third quarter. Guerrero’s top target is senior Spencer Montgomery, who ranks among section leaders with a 21.5 yards-per-reception average and nine touchdown catches.
Limit the big plays: In the Redskins’ four losses, they have allowed 12 touchdowns on offensive plays that went for 25 or more yards, including five in last week’s loss to Mission Oak. The Mustangs’ have an elite playmaker in Padilla, and the Redskins cannot afford him to get loose in the secondary. Tulare Western’s quality receiving corps could cause fits if too much emphasis is placed on stopping Padilla.
If all else fails, lean on Romello: It has to be comforting to Bennett that if his offensive unit as a whole is struggling, he can simplify the game plan and give the ball to junior running back Romello Harris all game long. Harris is the Central Section’s leading rusher with 2,048 yards (he ranks third in the state), averaging 8.1 yards per carry. He also leads the Central Section with 27 touchdowns. Against one of the area’s best defenses (Mission Oak) last week, Harris carried the ball 21 times in the second half for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He accounted for 228 of the Redskins’ 230 yards of total offense in the second half. Harris could be more explosive if the passing game is efficient enough to ensure that the Mustangs don’t overload the defensive front to clog up Harris’ running lanes.
Bell Game Facts
2014 records: Tulare Western 7-2, 3-1. Tulare Union 5-4, 3-1.
Series record: Tulare Union leads the series, 35-14.
2013: Tulare Western won, 14-6.
Longest Tulare Union win streak: Eight (1967-74)
Longest Tulare Western win streak: Four (1991-94)
Home team: Tulare Union.
Last time EYL championship was on the line for both teams: 2004. Tulare Western won, 28-14.
Calpreps’ projection: Tulare Union 31, Tulare Western 30.
Playoff Picture: Both teams will advance to the Central Section playoffs. Tulare Union is in Division II, and Tulare Western is in Division III. The Redskins are in the hunt for a top-6 seed in Division II with a win (they shouldn’t be lower than the No. 8 seed with a win). The Mustangs are in great position for a top-4 seed in Division III, and are almost certainly the No. 3 seed if they defeat the Redskins.
How to attend
The 50th annual Bell Game is Friday at Bob Mathias Stadium. Game time is 6:30 p.m. Tickets will be sold from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. today and Friday at the Bob Mathias Stadium West Ticket Booth.