D1AA State Champs Still Strong

Quali Conley (No. 2) and the rest of his teammates at Central of Fresno were all smiles after their win over Sierra Canyon in 2019 CIF D1-AA state championship. Photo: Mark Tennis.

Central of Fresno loses a lot of offensive firepower from 2019 club that made history with 15-0 record and CIF D1-AA state title. But don’t fret about the Grizzlies. They’re loaded on defense for the 2020-21 season, hoping they get to start on time in January, and should be fine on offense with another transfer quarterback.

Note: This writeup of last year’s state champions in the second-highest of the state’s numerous divisions is based on information and comments turned in by the head coach. It isn’t our plan to do the same for very many of the teams in which the coach filled out one of our preseason questionnaires, but Central head coach Kyle Biggs just gave us so much information we couldn’t resist. Thanks Coach Biggs. For any head coaches or school reps who didn’t get a questionnaire and would like fill one out, CLICK HERE.

We hope you enjoy this free post on CalHiSports.com. All of our annual preseason all-section, all-county and all-region football teams are being delayed in getting done until late November at the earliest. Once done, all of those posts will be for Gold Club members only as well, but we’ll still have plenty of free content to check out. Not to mention, we’ve just put all of our football state records onto the site for Gold Club members. You can now join for one-month rate of just $3.99. For subscription info, CLICK HERE.

Most schools that win a CIF state title can’t always project ahead that they’ll be able to repeat in the same division once again the following season.

That’s not due to players coming back or lost to graduation. It’s more about the competitive equity method the California Interscholastic Federation uses of seeding teams into various divisions. A team that is D3-AA one year, for example, easily could be D2-A the next.

Assuming that there will be at least some semblance of a season that will be played as Coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations are on the rise once again, Central of Fresno is a school that can project ahead.

Kyle Biggs, a former QB we once saw play at Clovis, took over at Central after being head coach at Fowler. Photo: Mark Tennis.

Head coach Kyle Biggs’ program, after all, has been in the CIF NorCal D1-AA regional title game the past three seasons, and there’s every indication that if the Grizzlies were to win a fourth straight CIF Central Section D1 crown next season that they would be in that same game again. And since they were on the road last year for that regional final at Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills, they also know that the next time they are in that game that they’ll be hosting.

Central could in theory also be a candidate for the NorCal spot in the CIF Open Division, but as long as powerhouse De La Salle of Concord has not lost to another team north of Fresno since 1991 it doesn’t look like the CIF will ever go in another direction. If De La Salle were to lose big in its upcoming scheduled Jan. 8 game with defending CIF Open Division state champ St. John Bosco, however, and Central were to be sitting on the board at 14-0 with a 29-game win streak, the CIF could look at not having another DLS-Bosco/Mater Dei matchup in the Open Division and give the Grizzlies a shot at it.

Biggs and his team certainly aren’t thinking in those terms. The Grizzlies’ own first game on Jan. 8 (if it gets played) won’t be easy. They are traveling to face a Rocklin team projected to be one of the best in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section with a top-notch returning quarterback (Richie Watts), two all-state caliber linemen (Bobby Piland and transfer Ilaisa Gonebure) and one of the top kicker/punters in the nation (Cole Becker).

Much of Central’s resurgence in the last few years can be traced to Biggs’ arrival (he’s now gone 51-5 at the school in five seasons) plus the huge success the Grizzlies had with quarterback Trent Tompkins. He was a three-year starter who had 11,743 yards passing (138 TDs) with another 1,812 yards rushing (13 TDs). Many of Tompkins’ career totals are top five in state history.

With Tompkins gone last season, the Grizzlies turned to San Joaquin Memorial transfer Jameson Silva at quarterback. Blessed with one of the state’s best receiving combos in Jeremiah Hunter (now at Cal) and Xavier Worthy (a junior who has committed to Michigan and is leaving early in January to head to college), Silva played well and had 3,301 yards passing with 44 TDs. He threw for 356 yards and three scores when Central topped Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth 34-19 in the 2019 state final.

Central may have scored big-time in the quarterback transfer game of musical chairs once again for the upcoming season as Buchanan of Clovis two-year starter D.J. Stevenson has checked in. Stevenson, the son of NBA player and former Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year DeShawn Stevenson, offers an exciting blend of athleticism and playmaking that should help make up for the loss of those two receivers.

“We will be very good on both sides of the ball,” Biggs said. “We have to replace a lot on offense but we are re-loading expecting a HUGE year from D.J., who will get a chance to really showcase his skills. Our offensive line also might be even the best we’ve ever had at Central.”

Central of Fresno QB Trent Tompkins looks for running room during game from 2017 season. Photo: Summer Olivas/CentralHighNews.com.

The Grizzlies have two of their leading tacklers returning to lead the defense. Senior linebacker Je’kob Jones was named to the all-state juniors first team with 85 tackles, 5.0 sacks and a pair of interceptions. Junior linebacker/defensive end Jeremiah Shelton was named to the all-state sophomores first team with 86 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

“Je’kob Jones has a chance to win four valley championships since he was on varsity his whole freshman year and even started a few games,” Biggs said. “He will be a MONSTER on defense, we return nine guys who had significant playing time in our front seven and Sahil Sihota will be the leader in the secondary.”

Another transfer from Buchanan that has Biggs especially excited is his nephew, Kasen James, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman. Biggs’ father, Bill, and Kasen’s grandpa also is Central’s offensive line coach.

There were many other players that Biggs reported that will be newcomers, transfers or those stepping up into increased roles from last year that should be considered on any players to watch list.

That group includes Asonii McDowell RB (from Washington of Easton), Jayden Bonds DB (from Sunnyside of Fresno), Marcus Ramirez LB (from Dos Palos), Aidan Fortenberry RB (sophomore who played on varsity as a freshman), Tanner Hirschler (a 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior coming up from the JVs), and two more with familiar last names moving up to the varsity — Amarian Hunter LB and Imari Conley WR/DB.

The Grizzlies had not been able to have a full team meeting yet due to COVID restrictions, but have been working out in 14-person pods. Biggs also mentioned that the Central Unified School District had plans heading into November to have its elementary students back on campus part-time in a hybrid distance and in-person plan beginning after the Christmas two-week break with the high school students not doing the same until nearer the spring break.

After its scheduled opener against Rocklin, Central has additional non-league matchups set up to play Grant (Sacramento), Bakersfield, Edison (Stockton) and Ridgeview (Bakersfield).

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at markjtennis@gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports

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