HILMAR — Frank Marques and the Yellowjackets only needed to look at East Nicolaus’ schedule to know it would be the favorite in last week’s regional bowl.
East Nicolaus bounded into the game unbeaten but truly untested — not like the Yellowjackets’ had been coming through the Trans-Valley League — and it showed. Hilmar pummeled the Northern Section champion, 48-14.
“If you look at their scores, they haven’t been tested,” went the pregame narrative.
So what do the Yellowjackets make of Strathmore’s path to Saturday’s CIF State Division VI-AA bowl? The two met last year in a thrilling overtime regional won by the Spartans on the final play — a daring two-point conversion that stunned the town of Hilmar and elevated Strathmore to historic heights.
“They’re going to try to shove it down your throat and come at you,” coach Marques said of the Spartans’ smash-mouth style of play. “I’ve been happy with the run defense during this playoff run. It’s a game we should be confident in. More than anything, they are a really good football team and we want a little redemption for last year.”
Just how strong is Strathmore?
In early two decades at the helm, coach Jeromy Blackwell, a former walk-on at Fresno State, has built the Spartans into a Tulare County powerhouse. Over the last three years, Strathmore is 43-2, including 16-0 in 2017.
The Spartans return to a state bowl following a 28-7 victory over Adelanto in the Southern California regional.
“We’re blessed with kids who are very hungry,” Blackwell told The Fresno Bee. “These kids love football. The seniors took it upon themselves and said, ‘It’s our time.’ ”
Or is it?
The tale-of-the-tape favors Hilmar, a four-time Sac-Joaquin Section champion playing in its first state bowl. Like East Nicolaus, Strathmore has played a “softer” schedule than the Yellowjackets. The Spartans have faced only two opponents ranked in the top 500 in state, according to MaxPreps’ computer-generated poll: No. 274 Adelanto; and No. 401 Woodlake, which handed the Spartans their only loss.
“We got beat up by Woodlake on homecoming,” Blackwell said. “They grew up really fast and we took it personally. This is a big win. Our team is disciplined and love each other and play for one another.”
Comparatively, Hilmar has faced nine teams in the top-500, including six ranked in the top-200. The Yellowjackets are 7-2 in those games and have beaten four straight top-500 teams en route to the school’s first state bowl: Amador (391), Escalon (157), Ripon Christian (193), and East Nicolaus (191).
Strathmore is ranked No. 274 — or 14 spots ahead of Sonora, the Yellowjackets’ Week 3 victim. Hilmar is No. 72. CalPreps.com has listed the Yellowjackets as the prohibited favorite, picking Hilmar to win in a rout.
Saturday’s game will be played at Hilmar High’s McSweeney Field after a walk-through by state and school officials.
“Our field is in fantastic shape,” Marques said. “It’s the first time Hilmar has been to State and we have the chance to play the game at home. How can we now play the game on our home field? We want to share this with the community.”
Last week, the CIF State Northern California Division VI-AA regional bowl was moved to Atwater High’s Falcon Field, an artificial turf surface, after rain made McSweeney’s grass field unplayable.
Today, McSweeney sparkles.
“The field looks like it’s in preseason form,” Marques said. “The state looked at it and said, ‘This looks as good as some turf fields.’ They gave us the go-ahead to do it.”
Hilmar has won its last two games in convincing fashion playing on artificial turf surfaces at Turlock High’s Joe Debely Stadium and Falcon Field.
Marques likes the speed at which the Yellowjackets’ operate their Spread offense on turf, but welcomes the opportunity to play for a state championship in Hilmar.
“For the community, it’s a great honor to host,” he said. “I don’t want to take that away from them.”
Follow James Burns on Twitter @jburns1980, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.