When you share so much history and common ground with your neighborhood rival (for instance, Woodlake High's former principal, Tim Hire, is Exeter's superintendent), an annual football game transcends to being just another date on a 10-game regular-season schedule. And for the first time in way too many years (16 to be exact), Woodlake defeated the Exeter Monarchs.
In past seasons, win or lose, the Exeter game seemed to set the tone for the season. According to Jeff Johnson, Tigers' second-year head coach, he's finally getting his players to buy into to notion to go into this game – known as the Valencia Classic – each year expecting to beat Exeter. Based on the results of this year’s game, that no-nonsense approach is starting to make sense.
“We just out game-planned them, knowing we had to defend their running game,” said Coach Johnson. “We forced them to throw the ball, and they didn’t do a good job in the passing game.”
Led by junior quarterback Damian Hernandez, the Tigers moved the ball through the air when it mattered most. Hernandez finished the game with 14 completions in 28 attempts for 169 yards. He also was the team’s leading ground-gainer with 72 yards rushing.
The leading Tiger receiver was Bryan Cuevas, a senior wideout. He caught 10 balls for 92 yards. QB Hernandez finished with only one interception while scoring two Tiger touchdowns.
“It was still a close game in the second half but I think it came down to conditioning,” Coach Johnson said. “They were a little gassed in the fourth quarter and we finished strong.”
For the 2018-2019 school year, the Tigers will proudly display the vaunted perpetual Valencia Trophy in the Tiger Trophy case in the high school’s front office. Of the 19 years that games have been annually played to see who keeps the trophy, Exeter leads the series 15 to 4.
When the trophy was first donated by Golden State Citrus Packers of Woodlake in 1999, there was no indication that there would be such a downturn in Tiger football fortunes. Before the inaugural game, Frank Ainley, then Woodlake’s athletic director, said it was the fans of both
schools that came up with the idea of “creating a new tradition within an existing tradition.”
The Tigers head coach for that inaugural game was Leo Robinson, who in 1999, was in his 39th season. Even the iconic Robinson admitted he was a little surprised how his Tigers played that September 10 under the Friday night lights.
Looking back— “I knew this team had more talent than last year’s,” Robinson said after the 1999 inaugural game. “The difference is that the guys are determined not to have another season like the last one.”
In 39 years of coaching, Robinson said, he had never seen such a quick reversal of his football team’s fortunes. In the 1998 season, the Tigers had managed only one win.
In 1999, against a bigger, stronger Exeter, they played like a Tiger possessed. What they possessed was an arsenal of offensive weapons and a tenacious defense. They quickly erased the memories of a bad last season by scoring 28 unanswered points.
Justin Tashiro, senior captain and running back from Three Rivers, scored first for Woodlake on a 10-yard run. The first half barrage featured some nifty passing of sophomore QB Arty Alvarez (8 of 9 for 177 yards). Woodlake’s running attack also featured a game-high 67 yards on five carries from Govinda “Govi” Hogan, a junior also from Three Rivers.
The 2018 season ahead— “If we can get through this next month with games against the powerful Lindsay, Strathmore, and Corcoran, we’ll be in good shape,” said Coach Johnson. “It’s always a challenge for small schools like Woodlake with so many playing both ways [offense and defense], but the guys have worked hard since January and I’m confident the hard work will payoff.”
Next up: Sierra (Tollhouse) at WHS’s Robinson Field tonight (Friday, Sept. 7). JVs kickoff at 5 p.m. immediately followed by the varsity match-up.